ALABAMA’S 13 state prisons for male convicts, which house about 16,000 inmates, are overcrowded, understaffed, grotesque chambers of horrors where beatings, rapes and suicides are commonplace and systematically underreported. Despite evidence of blatant constitutional violations, efforts at reform have been sluggish at best, and the state’s attorney general has thumbed his nose at the threat of federal litigation. From all appearances, only a no-nonsense consent decree, overseen by a federal court, can fix what may be the nation’s most mismanaged, inhumane and blood-soaked prison system.
In April 2019, an investigation by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division detailed shocking instances of torture, homicide and sexual predation in the state’s prisons. The report had little apparent effect. Months later, in separate facilities, two prisoners were beaten to death by staff. One of them, whose head and face were pulverized so badly that six teeth were knocked out and blood vessels were ruptured inside his skull, sustained his injuries falling from his bunk, according to the account prison officials gave to medical personnel.
Those incidents, and others equally bloodcurdling, are described in a new Justice Department report that concludes Alabama’s prisons systematically flout the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The report gives the state seven weeks to formulate a reform plan; barring that, Attorney General William P. Barr may sue and force a court-ordered consent decree.
In fact, Alabama has already faced years of litigation over its prisons, where abuses and loss of life have been extensively documented. Alabama officials contend, accurately, that overcrowding and understaffing have contributed to the problems. The Justice Department says the system is now 6,000 inmates over capacity. But state officials and lawmakers have been complicit in maintaining overcrowding, both by tightening parole rules and by refusing to enact legislation that would retroactively reduce sentences even for nonviolent offenders. In addition, recruitment and retention for poorly paid, dangerous jobs as correctional officers have been chronic problems.
The system’s problems will not be solved by building more facilities, as successive governors have proposed. The culture of mismanagement and violence is too entrenched, and the corrections department lacks basic accountability policies that would provide a full picture of the abuses.
Moreover, Alabama’s Republican attorney general, Steve Marshall, is demonstrably less interested in fixing the prisons than in grandstanding. Declaring the state “will not be bullied,” he rejects the prospect of any consent decree or bowing to the federal government mere weeks “before a presidential election” — as if President Trump were staking his campaign strategy on a civil rights case in Alabama.
Mr. Marshall’s stance is risible. Unfortunately, it’s also emblematic of a state government that has proved itself incapable of tackling a breakdown in its basic obligation to provide decent, safe prisons.