Alabama’s Solution to Prison Riots: Build More Prisons

Alabama hopes to solve its prison crisis by building new prisons. Critics warn that more riots are likely.

Inmates rest on their bunks as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and other officials stop to look at the security system that allows guards to monitor activity at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Ala., Monday, April 4, 2016. Prison guards are able to monitor inmate activities from this room, which overlooks the large inmate dormitory. Photo: Jamie Martin/Alabama Governor's Office

ALABAMA MAY SOON shut down 14 of its troubled prisons, swapping them for four massive new “state-of-the-art” facilities. The proposal, dubbed the “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act,” cleared the state Senate this week and is now headed to the House. Legislators hope the plan will solve chronic overcrowding, neglect, and violence in the state’s corrections system.

Prisoners and advocates, who have denounced abuses and mismanagement in the state’s prisons for years, condemned the plan for new prisons and said that administrators, not crumbling buildings, were to blame for turning Alabama’s prisons into a dangerous tinderbox. The state’s corrections system is operating at nearly 200 percent capacity and is the most overcrowded in the country.

The prison crisis in Alabama made headlines in March when riots broke out twice in four days at the Holman maximum security facility in Atmore, where inmates stabbed a guard and the warden, and then proceeded to post video of the rebellion on Facebook.

“We have people being killed, sexually assaulted, raped, stabbed on a daily basis at St. Clair, Holman, and multiple facilities; it’s a systemwide problem,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which represents Alabama prisoners. “The crisis with the prisons has to do with culture and management; it’s not something that can be solved by just building new prisons. There are structural problems, but the principal issue isn’t being dealt with by this new bill.”

EJI filed a class-action lawsuit against the Corrections Department in October 2014 on behalf of prisoners at St. Clair prison, claiming that officials failed to respond to dangerous conditions and an extraordinary high rate of violence. Six inmates were killed at that prison in less than three years and the nonprofit had already formally requested that the prison’s warden, Carter Davenport, be removed. Instead, he was reassigned to Holman, where critics say he has presided over the escalating violence that ultimately set off last month’s events.

In a separate lawsuit filed in June 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) accused the Corrections Department of neglecting prisoners’ health and discriminating against disabled prisoners. Prison officials agreed to a still-pending settlement for part of that lawsuit — concerning the rights of disabled prisoners — but the bulk of the allegations made against the department are headed to trial.

“It’s Going Down”

On the night of March 11, prisoners’ frustration over living conditions at Holman finally boiled over. A guard responding to a fight between inmates was stabbed. When Warden Davenport arrived at the scene, he was stabbed too. For several hours, up to 100 prisoners took over a dorm, setting fires and carrying makeshift weapons. A man currently incarcerated at Holman told The Intercept that prisoners spilled out of that dorm and reached a console that allowed them to open and access other dorms, and some 400 inmates, before guards were eventually able to regain control.

As the riot unfolded, one of the prisoners used a cellphone to post video to a Facebook account that has since been shut down, gaining Holman a brief moment of fame that prisoners hope will translate into a more lasting spotlight on the prison’s long-running problems.

On March 11, prisoners in Alabama’s Holman prison used a cellphone to post video of a riot to Facebook. Prison officials said they confiscated 30 cellphones and moved inmates involved in the riot to segregation.

Three days later, a second riot broke out. Department officials said that guards responding to an inmate stabbing were “met with resistance” and prisoners “became aggressive and barricaded themselves inside the dorm.” A prisoner told SPLC lawyers that they had staged a peaceful sit-down strike in protest over food and medical care being denied as “group punishment” after the first riot, to which guards responded with force. The inmate interviewed by The Intercept said that a fight had occurred, and that guards responded by locking the dorm’s front door, a fire code violation. When inmates asked for an explanation, the guards maced them, setting off the second revolt.

Prison officials said that only 17 guards — responsible for 991 inmates — were on duty at the time of the first riot. For both riots, the warden called in special security squads to regain control of the prison. The Department of Corrections admitted to “overcrowding” and “staffing shortages” but also blamed the riots on “a propensity for violence among an isolated group of inmates,” spokesperson Bob Horton wrote in a statement to The Intercept.

Advocates, legislators, and prisoners interviewed by The Intercept all agreed that the riots were “utterly foreseeable.”

“It’s incredibly fortunate that nothing worse happened,” said Lisa Graybill, the SPLC’s deputy legal director for mass incarceration. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Cruel Confinement

Using illegal cellphones — allegedly sold to them by guards for as much as $500 each — prisoners shared not only video of the uprising and photos revealing prison conditions, but also a list of demands, including federal assistance, the release of inmates who spent too much time at Holman or are eligible for parole, and compensation for “mental pain and physical abuse.”

The man currently incarcerated at Holman, who spoke to The Intercept on one of these phones, said he uses the phone to compensate for the lack of educational programs at the prison, which he and others have attempted to remedy by setting up informal schools and mentoring younger prisoners. “I’m always on the internet and YouTube downloading stuff that will make me a better teacher,” he said.

A member of the Free Alabama Movement, a network of prisoners that coordinates nonviolent protests, also justified the use of illegal cellphones. “These cellphones are lifesaving devices for us, and the only reason why they are considered contraband is because the state doesn’t want us to expose what’s going on inside,” he told The Intercept, requesting anonymity because he is in prison. “These are public institutions. … We want social media, we want people to see the actual story.”

While the stabbing of a warden might be unusual, stabbings and assaults are on the rise in Alabama prisons. In 2015, the Alabama Department of Corrections reported 13 assaults on inmates and 17 on guards at Holman alone. Assaults at Holman, particularly against guards, have increased 61 percent in the last five years, according to records obtained by Mobile’s NBC affiliate, WPMI. The week of the first Holman riot, a guard was stabbed at St. Clair prison, and an inmate was stabbed and killed at the Elmore prison days later. This week, stabbings and assaults were reported at St. Clair and Draper prisons.

“That is preventable and it does not happen in well-run, adequately staffed, well-managed facilities,” said Maria Morris, the SPLC’s managing attorney. “But it happens all the time in Alabama.”

In addition to its lawsuit, the SPLC issued a damning report exposing widespread neglect and denial of medical care. In particular, the SPLC found that to cut costs inmates were regularly denied medical treatment, which in several cases resulted in death. The report described requests for medical help that were ignored, derided, or met with beatings or segregation. It found that inmates were unwillingly or unknowingly signed up for “do not resuscitate” orders, that poor diabetes care led to frequent amputations, and contagious diseases like hepatitis C spread untreated. The SPLC also found that surgeries were denied for sometimes as long as a decade, broken bones were often ignored for weeks, and prisoners suffering from burns and strokes were at times denied care for days.

The inmate interviewed by The Intercept said that in one instance, a fellow prisoner repeatedly tried to gain admission to the infirmary but was turned away. When he finally saw a doctor, he was diagnosed with cancer, had five tumors removed, and died weeks later. “I felt like they killed him,” the inmate said. “We really have no value.”

Mental health care is no better. Suicidal prisoners had unrestricted access to razor blades, according to the SPLC report. After a man cut himself five times, a guard told him, “Why don’t you just go ahead and kill yourself?”

Over the last year at Holman, three men have hanged themselves while in segregation, including one who was discovered yesterday. One of the men who committed suicide had just been released from segregation, but he had an argument with the warden and was immediately sent back. He killed himself that same day. “He had been suffering from some mental change,” the inmate said. “I talked to him the day before he hung himself, and he just didn’t look right.”

Prisoners held at Holman’s segregation unit are often left without supervision, according to the SPLC. The unit also lacks call buttons, so if something goes wrong the only way to attract the guards’ attention is to make noise or start fires. Last summer, a young man held in segregation repeatedly screamed that he needed help. When nobody came, the man hanged himself. Inmates held in nearby cells told SPLC lawyers that it took several hours for someone to come and take the body down.

“You got guys in there that are literally dying. … They give them aspirin and tell them to go back to their cell. They go back to their cell, and they die,” said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, who spent 14 years in prisons in Alabama and Florida and now runs an organization offering re-entry support. “The rest of the people that are incarcerated with them are seeing them die, seeing them throw up blood, seeing them urinate blood. … That’s the cause of the riots.”

Glasgow and others in close contact with prisoners told The Intercept that more protests across Alabama prisons are imminent, and they listed a long catalogue of abuses compounding prisoners’ anger over their living conditions, including rat infestations, inedible food they dubbed “road kill,” and guards forcing inmates to fight each other in laundry rooms while betting on the outcome.

“When we look at how our prisons run, it’s really not a criminal justice system. It’s a criminal enterprise. A legal, criminal, enterprise,” the Holman inmate said. “If you make a felon out of a man, you take away his rights as a human being.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the abuse allegations and the suicides.

A Slow Death

The problems in Alabama’s prisons are a direct consequence of the incarceration binge that has swept the U.S. for decades, deepened by the conservative state’s propensity for harsh punishment, critics said. But those problems have also been compounded by the state’s overstretched budget, which has left schools and other public services severely underfunded. There is little public support for money spent on improving prisoners’ lives.

“A lot of people will say, ‘They’re criminals, they don’t deserve to be treated better,’” Susan Watson, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter, told The Intercept.

The amount Alabama spends on each inmate per day is the sixth lowest in the country. Still, the state continues to incarcerate an enormous number of people for a long time — even for crimes that in other states earn much shorter sentences. Imprisoning that many people comes at a cost — $394 million, or 22 percent of the state’s 2015 budget.


Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, right, and state Sen. Cam Ward look through bars toward a dormitory at Holman prison in Atmore, Ala., March 15, 2016.

Photo: Jamie Martin/Ala.Gov.Office/AP

Alabama’s new prison plan, if enacted, will add approximately 3,000 beds to the system, reducing overcrowding to 125 percent. In order to pay for it, the state will authorize an $800 million bond, which will be serviced by up to $50 million a year redirected from what the state already spends to maintain its decrepit prisons. “We were already solving this problem long before this took place,” Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, said in a press conference following the riots. He called the proposal “transformational thinking.”

Prisoner advocates were less impressed. “That would just move the problem,” said Watson. “In Alabama, we have a history: If we build them, then we overfill them.” Morrison, of EJI, said the state consulted several experts about its prison problems, and none had recommended building new prisons as a solution. “A multi-year prison construction does not address the immediate crisis they have,” she said.

Prisoners and their advocates say the only way to make incarceration humane — and legal — is to drastically cut the population of prisons, not build new prisons. If Alabama doesn’t fix its prison problem, it also risks federal intervention of the kind seen in California in 2011, when the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population.

“If they pull down their population, they’ll be able to afford to do what they’re legally obligated to,” Graybill said, adding that the SPLC will continue to sue the state if it doesn’t meet its responsibility to prisoners. “No matter how broke they are, they have to provide constitutional conditions of confinement.”

But efforts to reduce Alabama’s prison population have been slow to kick in. Last year, the state passed a bill reducing penalties for some nonviolent, property, and drug crimes, created a class D felony for some nonviolent offenses, and placed a new emphasis on parole. Those measures will reduce the population by 4,000 people over the next five years, according to estimates, but would still leave Alabama prisons running at 165 percent capacity.

Among the demands circulated by prisoners during the Holman riot was the abolishment of the 1977 Habitual Felony Offender Act — Alabama’s version of the three-strikes law, which can trigger life sentences for defendants with multiple felonies, and which quadrupled the state’s prison population within the span of 10 years.

“There are men who have been here for 35, 40 years, and some of these men didn’t take a life, didn’t rape a woman, didn’t rape a child,” said the incarcerated man interviewed by The Intercept, who himself is serving life without parole for three felony convictions. “The crimes they have committed just can’t warrant that you take their lives, that you give them a slow death … because they stole something.”

A rally outside Holman prison in support of the men incarcerated there is planned for Saturday.

Top photo: Inmates rest on their bunks as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, and other officials look at a security system guards use to monitor activity at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Ala., April 4, 2016.

Join The Conversation