Alabama Prison Conditions Are Unconstitutional, Justice Department Finds

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) explained in a 56-page letter on April 2 that the state of Alabama routinely violates the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution by failing to protect prisoners from violence and sexual abuse. The entity provided written notice to Governor Kay Ivey following a two-year investigation. The DOJ found that Alabama “misrepresented the causes of death and the number of homicides, overdose deaths, and natural deaths in its prisons,” Alabama-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) wrote. The investigation found that state prison officials did not disclose the deaths of at least 30 inmates; knives and dangerous substances are “ubiquitous” across the prison system, and men in state facilities die of drug overdoses.

“This massive undertaking alleges constitutional troubles in the Alabama Department of Corrections which are serious, systemic, and in need of fundamental and comprehensive change,” US Attorney Jay Town said in a statement. “That being said, I have great confidence in the State of Alabama’s resolve to correct the prison system’s problems. The commitment by Governor Ivey, Commissioner [Jefferson] Dunn, and so many others in the State’s leadership to affirmatively address these inherited issues offers great promise of our development of a meaningful remedy.”

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama began an investigation in October 2016 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which allows the entity to take action “when it has reasonable cause to believe there is a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to state or local government-run correctional facilities.”

The investigation ensued after EJI filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of incarcerated men at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville in 2014. The organization said the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to respond to dangerous conditions “and an extraordinarily high rate of violence at St. Clair, including six homicides in the preceding 36 months.” EJI added that poor management, noncompliance with protocols and procedures, and corruption were the root causes of violence in the overcrowded facility.

According to EJI, violence was fueled by policies that removed or decreased mental health and drug treatment services, and rehabilitative programming, as well as initiatives that limited recreation and removed books and other constructive activities from housing units. The organization submitted the findings to the Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner in April 2014 and renewed its petition in June 2014 following the murder of an inmate. EJI initiated court action in September 2014 after another death.

“An extraordinary amount of time and effort was expended to investigate this matter,” said US Attorney Louis Franklin Sr. said in a statement. “Although the results of this investigation are disturbing, I look at this as an opportunity to acknowledge that the problems are real and need to be addressed immediately. We are committed to working with State officials to ensure that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review,, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.