The Department of Justice announced Thursday that it opened a statewide investigation into the conditions of Alabama’s prisons for men.
The investigation will focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.
“The Constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “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.”
“The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates,” said U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. of the Middle District of Alabama.
“I am very pleased to have my office join the Northern and Middle Districts of Alabama as well as the Civil Rights Division in opening an investigation into the Alabama prison system,” said U.S. Attorney Kenyen R. Brown of the Southern District of Alabama. “All citizens, even those who are incarcerated, should expect sanitary conditions of habitation that are free of physical harm and sexual abuse.”
The Anniston Star newspaper reported today that Alabama’s prison system has been under increasing scrutiny in recent years, due to violence inside prison walls and allegations of sexual abuse. Federal officials have already intervened at Tutwiler Prison for Women after complaints of sexual abuse of inmates there. The state’s men’s prisons have seen several riots and stabbings in recent years; just Wednesday, state officials came to Anniston for a memorial service for Kenneth Bettis, a Holman Prison guard who died of stab wounds last month.
State officials often say overcrowding and aging facilities are to blame for much of the problem, according to officials.
There are now nearly 24,000 inmates housed in state prisons built for 13,300. The number of inmates was even higher a few years ago, before sentencing reforms began to chip away at the numbers, the Anniston Star reported.
In Anniston on Wednesday, Gov. Robert Bentley again called for a plan to build four new prisons to replace some of the state’s older facilities.
Elmore, AL — Three correctional officers lost their jobs after a video surfaced revealing one of the guards beating a handcuffed prisoner on his knees while the other two guards did nothing to stop or report the abuse. Although guards at Elmore Correctional Facility have a history of beating handcuffed prisoners, the Department of Corrections (DOC) decided to fire two of the guards and allowed the third to resign.
On December 11, 2014, Sgt. Juanice Cole escorted a handcuffed prisoner into the office of her shift commander, Lt. Edmond Cooper. After ordering her prisoner to kneel, Sgt. Cole waited until both of the prisoner’s knees touched the floor before striking him at least three times in the head and face. Instead of resisting, the inmate curled into a fetal position with his hands cuffed behind his back and remained motionless on the ground as she attacked him.
Caught on surveillance video, Lt. Cooper and a fellow correctional officer sit at their desks and make no attempt to stop Cole. After stepping away for a moment, Cole returns onscreen to hit the prisoner in the head again. While taking off her jacket, Cole appears to be ranting and raving at her coworkers, who continue to ignore the abuse that they just witnessed.
Although Cooper did send the inmate to the prison’s health care unit afterward, the shift commander did not bother to file an incident report nor notify his supervisors. After learning about the abuse, the DOC launched an investigation and placed the officers on administrative leave. Upon reviewing the video, the DOC decided to terminate the two of the officers and allowed the third to resign.
According to DOC spokesman Bob Horton, Cole was fired for inappropriate use of force and other violations. For failing to report the incident, Cooper was also terminated. The third guard resigned to avoid dismissal.
“The officers’ treatment of the inmate, and the failure to report the incident, is not in keeping with DOC standards of conduct,” Horton stated. “The department took appropriate action by terminating the former officers as a result of its own investigation.”
On June 2, Judge James Jerry Wood held a hearing on Cooper’s appeal. Three weeks later, Judge Wood issued a recommended order to the State Personnel Board to uphold Cooper’s termination even though Warden Leeposey Daniels testified on his behalf. Daniels had initially recommended a three-day suspension for Cooper. But after the DOC’s central office rejected the lenient punishment, Daniels changed his mind and called for Cooper’s termination.
On Tuesday, the Personnel Board upheld the decision to fire Cooper for failing to report prisoner abuse.
Last year, the Equal Justice Initiative sued the Alabama DOC and released a scathing report accusing guards at Elmore Correctional Facility of handcuffing inmates, stripping them naked, and beating them. The report also stated that Warden Daniels paraded around a severely wounded prisoner in front of the other inmates as a warning to them.