SOLITARY CONFINEMENT in a tiny, often sweltering, cell is something that most prison inmates try to avoid at all costs. Not so at Alabama’s notorious St. Clair Correctional Facility. So dangerous are the conditions there that prisoners actually prefer the segregation units to the general population, where they daily run the risk of being violently assaulted, raped and even murdered. What’s most appalling about the nightmarish conditions is that those in authority don’t seem to see any urgency in bringing about improvement and have instead tolerated the culture of violence.
The problems at the facility, one of six maximum-security prisons in Alabama, were recently highlighted by the New York Times. “In recent years, even by the standards of one of the nation’s most dysfunctional prison systems, St. Clair stood out for its violence,” wrote Campbell Robertson, detailing rampant violence and sexual abuse by both inmates and prison staff. “Like Devil’s Island,” was how one current inmate described the facility. Knives were ubiquitous and corrections officers absented themselves from cell blocks for long periods as calls for help from vulnerable inmates went unheeded.
The article cited overcrowding, understaffing and shoddy facilities, but most of the blame was placed on poor prison leadership, which has ignored and even encouraged the abuses. It is a conclusion that matches an investigation by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which in 2014 filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of inmates at St. Clair after its efforts to get the state to do something about the dangerous conditions were ignored. The final straw for the group was the September 2014 murder of Timothy Duncan, the sixth homicide in three years.
Since the lawsuit was filed, there have been some fixes, including a security upgrade that replaced the broken locks on cell doors and a reduction in the inmate population. State corrections officials report a downward trend in the number of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults. But more must be done to address the serious, systemic problems that persist. The Equal Justice lawsuit is in court-ordered mediation, a comprehensive plan to transform the state prison system is before the state legislature and the U.S. Justice Department has launched a broad overall review of the prison system.
Let’s hope these responses lead to productive steps in improving prisoner protection and programs. If not, the reflections of Mr. Robertson on his visit to St. Clair are bound to be borne out: “You know that terrible violence has happened here and will almost certainly happen again.”