The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Horrifying’ isn’t a strong enough word to describe Alabama’s prison conditions

Inmates stand in line for lunch at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., on June 18, 2015.
Inmates stand in line for lunch at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., on June 18, 2015. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

“HORRIFYING” IS too tame a word for the conditions documented in Alabama’s prisons by a chilling report the Justice Department released Wednesday. If conditions do not change, and soon, federal officials must force reform.

“Inadequately supervised . . . rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons . . . overcrowding and understaffing,” Justice Department investigators listed. “Prisoner-on-prisoner homicide and sexual abuse is common. Prisoners who are seriously injured or stabbed must find their way to security staff elsewhere in the facility or bang on the door of the dormitory to gain the attention of correctional officers. Prisoners have been tied up for days by other prisoners while unnoticed by security staff.”

Among the many gruesome cases they unearthed, the investigators recounted how prisoners in an undersupervised disciplinary zone watched for guards as others stabbed another inmate repeatedly. The wounded man had to drag himself to a locked door while other prisoners banged on it in order to get security staff’s attention. He bled to death.

Homicide rates in Alabama prisons are far higher than the national average. Sexual assault seems pervasive, even as it is almost certainly underreported. Alabama correctional staffers write off claims of rape as consensual “homosexual activity.” Prison rape is torture; it should not be a condition of incarceration, and it cannot be accepted.

The list of failings continues: “Prisoners are being extorted by other prisoners without appropriate intervention of management. Contraband is rampant. The totality of these conditions pose a substantial risk of serious harm both to prisoners and correctional officers.”

None of this should be news to Alabama officials, because the state’s prison system has been miserable for decades. “Alabama is deliberately indifferent to that harm or serious risk of harm and it has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence,” investigators concluded. The state has engaged in a “pattern or practice” of violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment, the report alleges.

The actions the Justice Department wants Alabama to take run from obvious to more obvious: hire more guards; set up monitoring systems to keep an eye on prisoners; do a better job documenting cases of abuse; make sure everyone entering a prison facility is screened; stop punishing inmates who come forward with abuse allegations; fix the showers; fix the toilets. If Alabama does not improve enough within 49 days, the letter warns that the attorney general may file suit in federal court.

It is good the Justice Department is paying attention. Now it must follow through. Such barbarity is not tolerable.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The terrible violence in an Alabama prison deserves a serious response

Jennifer Lackey: The measure of a country is how it treats its prisoners. The U.S. is failing.

Michael Gerson: No more pits of despair. Offenders are still humans.

Eugene Robinson: In prison reform, a little of something is better than a lot of nothing

Jason Rezaian: What happened during my first visit to a prison since being released from one