Resisting oversight

Prison laborers at Alabama’s Parchman in 1911.

Resisting oversight

AL refuses to work with the DOJ after it finds ‘pervasive’ inmate beatings by guards violate constitutional rights

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

On July 23, the Department of Justice released a second damning report of civil rights violations in Alabama prisons by correctional guards on inmates. This report comes more than a year after the DOJ released a 2019 report which found violence in AL prisons was ‘Common, Cruel, Pervasive’ even separate of guard abuse.

The most recent report focuses specifically on guard on inmate abuse where the first focused on how AL prison conditions created violence between inmates. The DOJ found pervasive use of excessive force in 12 of 13 prisons – which makes you wonder what AL was doing right in the 13th. “We have reasonable cause to believe that the uses of excessive force occurring within Alabama’s prisons give rise to systemic unconstitutional conditions,” the DOJ reported.

But, the same overcrowding – 6,000 inmates over capacity at the start of the 2020 – that creates violence between inmates also causes guards to use excessive force, according to the report.

The DOJ released what is called a “notice letter”. It is not legally binding, but it lays out the findings in an effort to bring the state or department of corrections in this case, to the table to figure out a way to fix the problem.

But AL isn’t super in to fixing the problem, or it doesn’t seem to be.

The DOJ doesn’t immediately sue states or DOC’s it finds to be violating citizens constitutional rights. So for over the last year, the ADOC and the DOJ have not come to a CONSENT decree – these agreements were used in places like Ferguson and many other cities with police brutality issues to legally FORCE departments to get in line. A year of debating an agreement seems like a longtime, and the only proposed solution in AL has been to build more prisons to reduce overcrowding.

The state has refused to enter into a consent decree to the puzzlement of many, but they may be counting on a change in procedure.

Jeff Sessions severely limited the use of these legally binding consent decrees on his last day in the Trump administration in 2018.

And guess what? In response to the July DOJ report, AL’s attorney general responded with surprise, though he has known of this investigation, and directly referenced Sessions.

“I have made it absolutely clear from the beginning that the State will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit. […] Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the use of civil consent decrees in a DOJ memorandum, acknowledging the sovereignty of state governments and urging special caution before using this bludgeon to settle litigation against the states,” the AG wrote, continuing to call the DOJ a “hall monitor” for wanting to supervise the prison reform.

The AG made it clear in his press release that the state will never enter a consent decree. “In short, a consent decree is unacceptable and nonnegotiable,” the AG said.

SO, that leaves us at the only outcome possible: the DOJ will take them to court where a judge could rule to force AL to follow the DOJ’s suggestions anyways.

And in this case, the evidence against the ADOC is, well, overwhelming. Two inmates in 2019 were bludgeoned to death by guards after already being subdued, there are reports of already restrained inmates being beaten for retaliation and little investigative effort by the ADOC into these violent beatings.

But a lawsuit to force the ADOC to follow their constitutional obligations to state citizens takes longer, which means thousands of men are struggling to survive in some of the deadliest prisons in America.

There’s a lot to unpack in this report: flip to p.10 for the evidence. News story here.

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