Alabama’s prisons are, to be generous, a disgrace. The state has been sued over what’s going on in those prisons repeatedly and they’ve been investigated by reporters at The Birmingham News, as well as investigators at the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC’s June 2014 report is a horrific read that ought to bring fury and tears to anyone who has even an ounce of humanity.
The list of morally criminal treatment of prisoners includes severe overcrowding, sexual abuse, and deaths from inadequate or entirely absent medical care. One blind prisoner was forced to sign a Do Not Resuscitate consent form he couldn’t read. There are 15.2 full-time-equivalent physicians and 12.4 FTE dentists for more than 25,000 prisoners in the system.
As Sofia Resnick at Rewire writes, these reports “paint a picture of widespread violence, rape, corruption, and filth.” So bad is the situation that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating not just one prison as is usually the case, but all 15 of them operated by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Yes, that would be the DOJ now overseen by Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions, the former Alabama senator much of whose reputation was built on support for “tough on crime” measures that have contributed to prison problems not only in Alabama but other states as well.
Sessions’ past and current records pushing policies that contribute to mass incarceration worry the civil rights attorneys and activists who have long been calling attention to Alabama’s deeply troubled prison system. Believing what the state needs is serious prison reform, some are skeptical of how deep this DOJ’s investigation will delve, and what reforms it will (or won’t) recommend.
“When it was announced, it was the most far-reaching investigation into a prison system that the Department of Justice had ever announced it was undertaking,” Maria Morris, an attorney for the SPLC—one of the leading plaintiffs involved in multiple legal claims against Alabama’s correctional system—told Rewire. “And the head of the Department of Justice is now the former senator from Alabama. We have no idea how that will play out. We certainly hope that he will push the department to do a really thorough and comprehensive investigation.”
Hope is a fine sentiment. But you’ll excuse me if I seriously doubt a Sessions-vetted DOJ report on Alabama’s prisons will be worth a half-pint of spit.