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Justice Department says Alabama inmates are subjected to excessive force

The Department of Justice has found that the conditions at Alabama's prisons for men violate inmates' constitutional rights because they are subjected to excessive force. After a multi-year investigation, the department discovered the use of excessive force by correctional officers at 12 of the 13 facilities evaluated, violating inmates' Eighth Amendment rights. 

"Given the identified pervasiveness of the uses of excessive force and the statewide application of [Alabama Department of Corrections'] use of force policies and procedures, we have reasonable cause to believe that the uses of excessive force occurring within Alabama's prisons give rise to systemic unconstitutional conditions," the Justice Department wrote in a letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.

The Eighth Amendment protects inmates from "cruel and unusual punishment," and during their investigation, the Justice Department found instances where correctional officers used excessive force on inmates by using batons, chemical agents and physical force. Some inmates were victims of excessive force when they were already restrained or subdued, and there was no heightened risk to officers. 

"The Constitution guarantees prisoners the right not to be subjected to excessive force and to be housed in reasonably safe conditions," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. "Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama's prisons for men. The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the department's concerns."

The department opened an investigation into the prison system in October 2016 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, into three areas of concern: whether inmates were protected from physical or sexual abuse from other inmates, from correctional officers, and whether inmates were living in sanitary, secure, and safe conditions. 

While the department did not find evidence to suggest that correctional officers were sexually assaulting inmates, they did find a pattern showing a "lack of accountability in reviewing and tracking uses of force." They also noted that many instances of excessive force likely went unreported. 

"Ultimately, Alabama does not properly prevent and address unconstitutional uses of force in its prisons, fostering a culture where unlawful uses of force are common," the report said.

The Justice Department said that 13 prisons for men in Alabama hold 16,600 men in-house — 6,000 more than they have the capacity for. DOJ pointed to issues of overcrowded facilities and understaffing as potential causes for the increased rate of excessive force.

Last year, two inmates died after use of force incidents at two separate prisons in the state. In one case, officers reported that an inmate fell from a bunk bed, however, the autopsy showed that the prisoner died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head and that he suffered from "intracranial bleeding, fractures of his nose and left eye socket, and had at least six teeth knocked out." Two officers were placed on leave.

"Despite ADOC's awareness of these incidents, it failed to effectively address systemic deficiencies—particularly with respect to accountability measures—that are leading to uses of excessive force," the report alleges. "We also found that ADOC failed to make and maintain proper records of excessive force incidents and that ADOC was unwilling to produce records that it did maintain."

This is the second time since last April that the department found unconstitutional conditions in the state's troubled prison system. At the time, the Justice Department said the state failed to protect inmates from "prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe and sanitary conditions."

The DOJ warns that they will file a lawsuit if the state does not take action to rectify the situation in 49 days. 

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