BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) - The Equal Justice Initiative filed a class action on behalf of nine inmates at the St. Clair Correctional Facility citing "an extraordinarily high rate of violence at St. Clair, including six homicides in the past thirty-six months."
In its federal lawsuit, the Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit says the facility is severely overcrowded, and that the violence among inmates can be traced to poor management, inadequate security and "widespread corruption among officers who "extort money and favors from prisoners in exchange for drugs."
The EJI says it has documented serious and chronic lapses at the prison, which is located in Springville, Alabama, including chronic lapses in security.
But it was the murder rate at the jail that EJI investigators found most troubling.
In their lawsuit they site statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice that show that in 2011, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, the national prisoner-on-prisoner homicide rate in state prisons was approximately 5.4 homicides per 100,000 prisoners.
By comparison, the homicide rate at St. Clair during the same period was about 75.4 homicides per 100,000 prisoners, and the number has gone up every year since. According to EJI, the number will reach 232.4 homicides per 100,000 prisoners at St. Clair by the end of the 2014.
In addition, investigators say that based on the Alabama Department of Corrections own data, the rate of serious assaults and stabbings at the prison from January to May, 2014, was 848.8 per 100,000 prisoners, and the rate of fights during that period was 4,321 per 100,000 prisoners.
The organization said it shared its findings with Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas in April 2014, and asked that he conduct his own investigation of the escalating violence. In June 2014, following another murder, EJI says it made a formal request for the removal of St. Clair Warden Carter Davenport - whom, the organization says, engages in "arbitrary and unpredictable bullying tactics that keep the prison on edge"-- and asked for the hiring of additional staff to stem the tide of violence.
When another prisoner was murdered in September, the EJI concluded it had no alternative but to initiate court action.
The 42-page lawsuit lists numerous occasions when jail staff, including high ranking officials, allegedly assaulted inmates while they were handcuffed. One inmate was beaten so badly he suffered hearing loss and now needs a hearing aid and prisoners have been taken to the hospital due to their injuries, the complaint says.
Plaintiffs say as bad as the statistics suggest conditions are at the jail, many incidents go unreported.
In their complaint, the inmates cite several reasons that perpetuate the violence at the jail, including inadequate supervision by staff. One guard is assigned to watch over 96 prisoners at a time and officers do not regularly "walk through" the cell blocks. According to plaintiffs, the locking mechanisms on the cell doors are either broken or can be jammed with various items so they don't lock and inmates can travel to other cells during lock down times.
Additionally, the lawsuit claims there are few functioning cameras in the cell blocks with lots of "blind spots" where inmates can stab, strangle and beat other prisoners without being seen.
One inmate was hog-tied and strangled to death by several other prisoners who were able to enter his cell. Another prisoner had his ear bitten off and it was flushed down the toilet before officers arrived while another inmate was stabbed with an ice pick in the gym, the complaint says.
Plaintiffs say defendants do not segregate violent or mentally ill prisoners and do not screen incoming prisoners to see if they have enemies at the jail or if they are in a gang. They also say the defendants do not consider a prisoner's "conviction, sentence and disciplinary record" when selecting housing assignments and therefore, "minimum, medium and maximum custody prisoners can be, and are, assigned to the same units and cells as each other."
Plaintiffs claim one defendant, Capt. Carl Sanders, responded to an elderly inmate's expressed fears of his cellmate by giving the old man a box cutter for protection.
"When I see one of y'all on a stretcher, I know it's a problem," Sanders is alleged to have said.
The lawsuit says when inmates are involved in an altercation, they are placed in isolation for a period of time. Before they are able to leave solitary confinement, both the victim and aggressor have to agree to a "living agreement" and they are usually placed back in the same unit. Plaintiff Derrick White claims he requested a move to segregation because he feared for his life and when his request was denied, he was stabbed. Several other prisoners claim they were stabbed by cell mates after requesting a move.
Plaintiffs say due to "poor management" drugs are prevalent throughout the jail, with officers bringing in the contraband and selling them to prisoners.
Adding to the problems in the jail, defendants do not provide adequate services to those prisoners with mental illness and rather than trying to help them, these inmates are placed into segregation "which isolates them and can exacerbate their symptoms. These prisoners are then released back into general population more impaired and more traumatized," the plaintiffs say.
According to the complaint, defendants have also "severely restricted programs that are aimed at reducing violence" including giving inmates limited access to outside religious organizations and reducing access to books.
Plaintiffs are seeking relief for "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and they are also asking for unannounced inspections of the St. Clair facility.
In a written statement, Commissioner Thomas said,
"Inmate and staff safety is a top priority for the Alabama Department of Corrections, and we do not tolerate inmate abuse in any of our facilities.
"Whenever allegations are reported against both inmates and officers and backed by credible evidence, ADOC takes appropriate action to hold people accountable," he continued. "St. Clair Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison housing dangerous people who have committed serious acts of violence like murder, rape, robbery and burglary. However, the department has undertaken a number of measures to improve safety. Thanks to funding this fiscal year, the ADOC was recently able to begin replacing doors, locks and controlling mechanisms at the facility.
"The department has been meeting routinely with members of the Equal Justice Initiative to discuss concerns about St. Clair, and regrets that they have chosen to file a lawsuit ... There are many hard working correctional employees at St. Clair who are committed to maintaining order and peace inside the prison."
Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative is representing the class.
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