(CN) – It’s a sign of how violent Alabama prisons for men have become: Makeshift knives and other homemade weapons are everywhere. Inmates scrounge metal from dish racks, light fixtures and yard fences and fashion them into long knives. Many keep more than one.
Across the Alabama prison system, shift commanders told federal investigators they estimated half to three-quarters of the male population in Alabama state prisons have some kind of weapon.
According to one prisoner that federal investigators spoke with, a corrections officer told him that he would need a knife to protect himself in Bibb Correctional Facility, a facility in central Alabama that inmates call “Bloody Bibb.”
In just one example of the violence, a prisoner in Ventress Correctional Facility sent another inmate to the hospital in April 2018 for a punctured lung after attacking him with a makeshift hatchet made from a foot-long broom handle and a lawn edging blade.
The knives – combined with overcrowding, rampant contraband drug use and few guards – led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to conclude in a 56-page report issued Wednesday that Alabama’s Department of Corrections violates prisoner’s civil rights by not protecting them from violence and sexual abuse.
“Alabama is incarcerating prisoners under conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm, even when that harm has not yet occurred,” the report states. “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.”
Furthermore, the state’s prisons have fallen into poor conditions. The report cited moldy showers, broken toilets and failing heat systems.
Even as it has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the nation, the Justice Department found the lack of staffing at Alabama prisons is becoming a crisis.
“According to recent data published by ADOC, Alabama’s prisons have a system-wide occupancy rate of 165%,” the report said. “ADOC houses approximately 16,327 prisoners in its major correctional facilities, but the system was designed to hold 9,882.”
The report told the Alabama Department of Corrections it has 49 days to institute minimal changes to its system or the federal government will initiate legal action.
“We hope, however, to resolve this matter through a more cooperative approach and look forward to working with you to address the alleged violations of law we have identified,” the DOJ’s letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said.
The letter was signed by Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general of the civil rights division, and all three U.S. Attorneys in the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama.
“Prisoner-on-prisoner homicide and sexual abuse is common,” the report states. “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.”
Alabama prisons have a homicide rate among prisoners eight times the national average – and that may be underreported, according to the report.
During its investigation, the DOJ found at least three homicides that the Alabama Department of Corrections did not report in 2017 and early 2018.
“There are numerous instances where ADOC incident reports classified deaths as due to ‘natural’ causes when, in actuality, the deaths were likely caused by prisoner-on-prisoner violence,” the DOJ report said.
And when sexual assaults occur, according to the report, the Department of Corrections does an inadequate job investigating the incident.
“Many of the assaults happen at knifepoint, with no indication that ADOC conducted a comprehensive weapons search in response,” the report states.
Investigators say the Department of Corrections knew of the problems in its prisons. For example, after a corrections officer died when he was stabbed in the head in 2016, the state outfitted its officers with stab-proof vests.
A statement issued by the governor’s office said the state plans on building new prisons to enhance security and pointed out that the DOJ report noted Alabama’s steps towards change – a contraband sweep at a prison in February, for example.
“DOJ has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Ivey said in a statement. “Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed.”
Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the systematic issues that plague the state’s prisons have gotten so bad that the federal government had to stage an intervention.
He described the “explosive” report as one that “starkly outlines” the violence that occurred in the prisons. The next question, he said, is how the state responds.
“Simply building a new prison doesn't resolve the problem,” Marshall said. “And so I would hope that there would be more far-reaching thinking about how the prisons got to the state that they're in now.”
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