He may be the only one who wants one, but Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall seems eager for a showdown with the U.S. Department of Justice over the state of Alabama’s prisons.
No one disputes the state’s prisons are in deplorable shape. The only question is what to do about it, and it’s a question that has stymied governors and state lawmakers for years, largely because lots of money and not a few local jobs are at stake.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan is to have private contractors build new prison facilities that the state would then lease. Her administration is moving forward with that plan while the state Legislature — where some members worry about costs and ultimate control of the facilities — is out of session.
But the Justice Department gave added urgency to the situation last week when it issued a report telling us what we already know: that Alabama’s prisons for men are so bad they amount to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
In particular, the Justice Department said, prison staff routinely subjects inmates to excessive force.
“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama’s prisons for men,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.
In one harrowing example, a prison guard beat a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” while the prisoner begged the officer to kill him.
Other correctional officers have pleaded guilty, or been convicted of using excessive force against prisoners, including one incident when at least four officers beat a prisoner to death, the department noted in its report.
State officials have largely blamed the state’s unsafe prison conditions on too many inmates and too few guards, which leads to too little supervision of inmates and overworked, overstressed jailers.
But the incidents cited by the Justice Department go beyond that. There are clearly some jailers on duty in Alabama’s prisons who are not fit for the job.
Still, alleviating overcrowding and understaffing would help, as the Justice Department’s report says: “The severe and pervasive overcrowding increases tensions and escalates episodes of violence between prisoners, which lead to uses of force. At the same time, the understaffing tends to generate a need for more frequent uses of force than would otherwise occur if officers operated at full strength.”
Gov. Ivey’s response was conciliatory, but buried within it was an insistence that Alabama be left to deal with its prison issues itself.
“We all desire an effective, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, and my administration will put in the hard work and long hours necessary to achieve that result,” she said.
“Alabama solution” is code for saying the state does not want the federal government to take over the state’s prisons, but unless the state makes progress soon, it may not have a say in the matter.
Marshall accused the Justice Department of ambushing the state and of playing politics by setting a deadline for an agreement that would fall “fifty-three days before a presidential election,” apparently forgetting the Justice Department currently is run by fellow Republicans.
“Along with the release of its newest findings today, DOJ officials also communicated to my office that the state has 49 days to agree upon the terms of a consent decree,” Marshall said in a statement. “Presumably, if we do not, the federal government will file suit.”
Rather than posturing, Marshall and other state officials need to take the state of the state’s prisons seriously. If it comes to a legal battle with the feds, the state will lose.