Corrections officers in the Alabama prison system used excessive force on prisoners in a series of incidents, according to a Department of Justice (DOJ) report released Thursday.
The report found that Alabama corrections officers frequently use excessive and sometimes deadly force in violation of inmates' constitutional rights in 12 out of 13 prisons the DOJ reviewed.
Investigators found “reasonable cause to believe that the uses of excessive force occurring within Alabama’s prisons give rise to systemic unconstitutional conditions.”
Corrections officers used batons, chemical spray and physical actions such as kicking and beating to discipline inmates, leading to serious injuries and at least two deaths last year.
One of those incidents occurred in October 2019, where investigators found “the level of force used caused the prisoner to sustain multiple fractures to his skull, including near his nose, both eye sockets, left ear, left cheekbone, and the base of his skull, many of which caused extensive bleeding in multiple parts of his brain.”
“The autopsy listed 16 separate and distinct injuries to the prisoner’s head and neck, in addition to multiple fractured ribs and bleeding around a kidney,” the report found.
According to investigators, in one instance a corrections officer told an inmate, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the inmate was being beaten. The prisoner reportedly begged the officer to kill him.
The pattern of abuse came to light after a series of civil rights lawsuits against the Alabama prison system over the years, including litigation filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“The violent conditions and circumstances outlined in the DOJ’s latest report are at the hands of prison personnel and demonstrate failures of the Alabama Department of Corrections’ leadership to ensure people in their custody are safe,” Ebony Howard, the SPLC's senior supervising attorney, said in a statement. “This unconstitutional behavior will not be solved by building newer, larger prisons.”
The report gave Alabama officials 49 days to address the concerns detailed by the DOJ, warning the attorney general may sue.
Alabama's Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall has said he is against the state entering into a legal agreement with the federal government over prison conditions. He said the state was "ambushed" by the report and that they have "never denied the challenges that the Alabama Department of Corrections is facing."
"Alabama will not be bullied into a perpetual consent decree to govern our prison system, nor will we be pressured to reach such an agreement with federal bureaucrats, conspicuously, fifty-three days before a presidential election," Marshall said in a statement.