Ala. prison crowding worsens 10 months after DOJ allegations

Officials believe the closure of a dilapidated state prison will increase overcrowding ten months after the U.S. DOJ said prison conditions violate the Constitution

Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Ten months after the U.S. Department of Justice said overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons helped create conditions so violent that they violate the Constitution, the problem is getting worse.

Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced the partial closure of Holman Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Atmore, because of an inability to safely provide water, electricity, and sewage service due to the hazards in a tunnel that houses the utilities.

The sign outside Alabama's Holman Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Atmore that is soon to be partially closed, despite concerns the closure will increase the state's overcrowding problem.
The sign outside Alabama's Holman Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Atmore that is soon to be partially closed, despite concerns the closure will increase the state's overcrowding problem. (Photo/TNS)

U.S. Attorney Jay Town of the Northern District of Alabama, part of the DOJ team negotiating with Alabama officials on how to fix the prison problems, said he didn’t find out about the decision until shortly before a press release went out today.

“I think it’s important that in any sort of negotiations that information come to the Department of Justice real time,” Town said. “And if it is the case that this decision was made prior to today then it’s disappointing that we didn’t learn about that decision when it was made.”

The DOJ notified Gov. Kay Ivey in April that it could file a lawsuit against the state under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) because of prison conditions. Since then, Justice Department and state officials have negotiated on ways to fix the prisons outside of court. Town said today the closing of Holman does not make a lawsuit more likely.

“This doesn’t make us closer to a CRIPA lawsuit, but it is disappointing for our team to learn of this today,” Town said.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said plans to eventually close Holman have been in the works since 2018, but worsening conditions with the facility accelerated that plan in recent weeks. He said the decision to close Holman was an operational matter that, as a general rule, would not involve notifying lawyers involved in negotiations with the state.

“The ADOC adheres to strict security protocols regarding any inmate movement which are based on national standards and followed by every correctional department in the United States," Dunn said in a statement. “These protocols are designed and in place to ensure inmate, correctional staff, and public safety above all else. Given the sensitive nature and security risks associated with this operational decision, third parties and outside agencies were not provided advance notification. We will continue to make strategic short- and long-term decisions based solely on the well-being and best interests of our inmates and staff. We also will continue to work in good faith with all relevant parties.”

Town said he didn’t think Dunn had intentionally kept information from DOJ.

“I do think that Jeff Dunn is an honest man,” Town said. “I don’t think he was intentionally avoiding telling me or our team. I just think if there’s a situation like this in the future, I’m hopeful we will learn about it real time rather than just prior to a press release.”

Dunn announced this morning that about 617 inmates would move from Holman to other ADOC prisons. Death row and the execution chamber will stay at Holman, although death row will move to a different part of the prison. A dorm for inmates who work in the prison’s license plate and clothing plants will also stay operational.

Prisoners in the main unit at Holman -- about 422 general population inmates and 195 inmates in restrictive housing -- will move to the state’s other prisons. Alabama has 11 other men’s prisons. Four of those -- Kilby, St. Clair, Donaldson, and Limestone -- are maximum security prisons like Holman. The other seven are medium security.

Dunn said assessments are under way to determine where to move the Holman inmates are under way.

“It’s a little bit more complex than just dividing the number of inmates by the number of facilities and placing that number there because certain facilities, based on their population, may have more capacity, others may have less,” Dunn said. "And it’s also based on their classification level."

The ADOC will provide weekly updates about the transfers on its website.

According to ADOC’s statistical report from October, the most recent one available, the prisons held 21,081 in facilities designed for 12,412, an occupancy rate of 170%. The population grew by 886 inmates compared to October 2018. The growth in the number of inmates comes after several years of decline. A slowdown in the number of inmates being granted parole is one factor.

Town was asked how concerned the DOJ is that prisons are holding more inmates than they were in April, when DOJ’s report said overcrowding and serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision exacerbated the unconstitutional conditions.

“Overcrowding is very often a cause of the violations that we detailed in our letter of findings,” Town said. “So, to the extent any prison system becomes more crowded just makes that system more vulnerable to Eighth Amendment violations, and those issues we identified in our letter of findings.”

Most of the DOJ report last April concerned the high levels of violence, sexual abuse, weapons, drugs, and other problems creating dangerous conditions. The report also noted the deteriorating conditions of the state’s prisons and said the facilities "do not provide adequate humane conditions of confinement.”

Town said the partial closing of Holman further bolsters that point.

Dunn has sounded the alarm about deteriorating prisons during the almost five years he has been prison commissioner. He was commissioner under former Gov. Robert Bentley, who proposed building new prisons with a bond issue. The Legislature rejected those plans.

Under the Ivey administration, the ADOC is seeking proposals from companies to finance and build three men’s prisons that the state would lease and operate. The companies building the prisons would bear the upfront costs. Dunn said proposals are expected by the end of April.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has been a leader in prison reform efforts in the Legislature, said he had been to Holman multiple times and was struck by the poor conditions.

“It was literally falling apart when I was there last as far as wiring, plumbing,” Ward said. “It’s an old building. That’s what happens. It wasn’t designed to hold that many people.”

Ward said he is concerned that packing more prisoners into fewer prisons will raise the likelihood that a federal court will eventually order the state to release inmates.

“This is nothing new,” Ward said. “This has been coming. We keep kicking the can and every time we kick the can it gets a little more expensive.”

Town, asked whether ADOC has made improvements since the DOJ report in April, said it will take more time to see if things are getting better.

“I do think that ADOC is doing their level best to improve the prisons in Alabama even before we have any sort of settlement agreement in place,” Town said. “They are being proactive. I do believe ADOC is being proactive in their efforts to improve the facilities.”

Despite the new problems presented by the partial closing of Holman, Dunn said he sees progress toward addressing some of the decades-old problems with Alabama prisons.

“In the sense of the discussions we’re having with DOJ and the progress we’re making in those discussions, I think it’s very positive,” Dunn said. "Every indication that I get is we’re making progress, that the two teams are working well together and we anticipate a positive outcome of negotiations with DOJ.

“As we mentioned when the DOJ letter came out, we’ve been highlighting these issues for a long time and until we really put some significant resources behind solving these problems we’re going to continue to struggle. That said, I think the state has made several significant down payments on solving these problems.”

Dunn mentioned ongoing efforts to bolster the ADOC staff. He said the agency has had a net gain of 255 correctional officers in the last year and is in the process of hiring more than 400 more. The Legislature approved funding to increase pay and incentive bonuses for officers.

That’s a start toward meeting the requirements of a federal court order to add 2,200 correctional officers by 2022, an order resulting from a lawsuit over mental health care for inmates. Dunn said ADOC has increased its mental health staff and is adding new career training programs for inmates in commercial truck driving at Staton Correctional Facility and carpentry and HVAC at Bibb Correctional Facility.

“I think there are some very positive signs and I’m optimistic that in 2020 we’ll begin to see the impact of those efforts that have been made in this last year and will continue to be made as we go forward,” Dunn said. “I do feel like that we’re making progress. I think more so than ever before and certainly within my tenure, which is coming up on five years, all sectors of the state are focused on helping to address this problem.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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