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Justice Department threatens lawsuit over constitutional violations in Alabama prisons

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has found “reasonable cause” to believe conditions in Alabama prisons violate the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, warning that it may file a lawsuit in response.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama launched a statewide investigation into prison conditions 2 1/2 years ago and concluded the facilities have failed to protect prisoners from violence and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners and has failed to provide safe conditions, according to a report released Wednesday.

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The report says these issues have been compounded by overcrowding and “serious deficiencies” in staffing and supervision.

The DOJ says in its report that the state's Department of Corrections (DOC) must take steps to accurately classify in-custody deaths. Public DOC reports indicate that between January 2015 and June 2018, 24 prisoner deaths occurred due to homicide.

The DOJ investigation identified three further, unreported homicides and numerous cases of deaths attributed to “natural causes” that were likely the result of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. One such case involved a prisoner who died four days after a knife fight and had multiple stab wounds to his abdomen, back, head and arm, according to the report. DOC records list his death as “natural” even though the autopsy report classified it as a homicide.

The report also found that an “alarming number” of prisoners were killed by other prisoners with homemade knives. In many cases the victims had previously been nonfatally stabbed, indicating they were at risk for further violence, but the Department of Corrections took no steps to prevent further harm or death, according to the report.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who leads the department’s civil rights division. “The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

The department warned Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) that it may follow through with a lawsuit within 49 days after the issue of its notice.

“We appreciate the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to ensure open lines of communication with the State of Alabama. DOJ has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Ivey said in a statement.

“Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”