The federal Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Alabama, alleging that conditions in the state’s prisons are illegally bad.
In its complaint, the Justice Department claims that Alabama and its corrections system have taken insufficient steps to protect prisoners from violence—violence from their fellow inmates, and from facility staff, too.
According to National Public Radio, Alabama hosts 13 “major correctional facilities.” All of them are purportedly notorious for their unsafe conditions. Many prisoners report being regularly attacked or sexually abused; medical treatment is allegedly difficult to access.
NPR suggests that the Justice Department’s lawsuit is, in effect, the federal government’s last-ditch attempt to make Alabama improve prison conditions.
“The State of Alabama,” says the lawsuit, “is deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men.”
Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, said the Justice Department’s move is “disappointing.”
“The state has actively been negotiating in good faith with the Department of Justice following the release of its findings letters,” Ivey said. “Out of respect for the legal process, we unfortunately cannot provide additional comment at this time.”
However, the Justice Department’s lawsuit asserts that conditions in Alabama prisons have, if anything, gotten worse since the agency first began investigating.
“Alabama’s prisons for men are now more overcrowded than in 2016, when the United States initiated its investigation,” the lawsuit charges.
NPR notes that such overcrowding, coupled with dilapidated prison facilities, has led both to violence in Alabama prisons and contributed to the spread of novel coronavirus within them.
Months before launching the suit, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard W. Moore said that Alabama prisons are so poorly maintained that they violate inmates’ constitutional rights.
“Our investigation has demonstrated that constitutionally required standards have not been met in Alabama prisons and this must be corrected,” Moore said. “I am disappointed that the efforts of both Alabama officials and Department of Justice officials to find appropriate solutions have not resulted in mutually agreed upon resolution. Our oath as public officials now requires us to follow the Constitution to pursue justice in the courts.”
While Alabama has protested the department’s action in light of ongoing settlement talks, civil rights activists and attorneys have question what—if anything—is sufficient motivation for the state to right its wrongs.
“The same questions arise again for Alabama leaders,” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Ebony Howard. “Now that the State is a defendant in another federal lawsuit and again linked to civil and human rights abuses, will leaders remain silent in the face of this crisis?”