The federal government is investigating prisons throughout Alabama in an inquiry that is “possibly unprecedented”. The investigation comes after a series of strikes and riots that have revealed the state’s prisons are in turmoil.
“It’s a giant investigation. This is rare,” said Lisa Graybill, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is conducting an investigation of its own. Previously Graybill worked for the federal unit that will investigate Alabama, and said the closest comparison in memory was an examination of Puerto Rico’s juvenile jails. “Taking on a whole state is unusual and possibly unprecedented,” she said.
According to the Department of Justice (DoJ) the investigation will focus on whether prisoners are protected from physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and guards, and whether living conditions are sanitary and safe in general at men’s prisons.
Alabama’s prisons – particularly the notorious Holman prison – were at the forefront of a nationwide call for prisoners to strike from work, last month. On 9 September prisoners across the US began a strike that lasted several days, in some places. And at Holman, guards joined striking prisoners by staying home from work.
Those strikes also came on the heels of two riots at Holman. During the riot inmates had stabbed warden Carter Davenport and another guard. They set fire to the dorm and carried prison-made swords. The warden and guard survived the attack, and special security squads swept in to quash the riot. But a few days later another riot started after one inmate stabbed another. Davenport, who declined to speak with the Guardian about the unrest, recently resigned his position.
“Our obligation is to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated,” US attorney Joyce White Vance, of northern Alabama, wrote in a press briefing on Thursday.
Her counterpart in southern Alabama, US attorney Kenyen R. Brown, said prisoners “should expect sanitary conditions of habitation that are free of physical harm and sexual abuse”.
Graybill said the uproar has pulled back a veil that previously obscured Alabama’s prison conditions. Litigation in California and Arizona have recently brought reform but Alabama’s prisons are the most overcrowded, operating at about 183% capacity. “There is a national recognition that Alabama is in crisis,” Graybill said.
The federal government is stepping in because although prisons are run by states, they are beholden to the US constitution.
“The constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DoJ’s civil rights division, said Thursday.
The welfare of prisoners comes under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which grants the DoJ authority to investigate violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights that result from a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights”. The department has investigated other correctional systems previously, but the scope of the current inquiry – an entire state – may be unique.
“We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Alabama in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that the state’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm,” Gupta said.
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