Report: Male inmates allege abuse in 3 Ala. prisons

Beatings, sexual assaults at 3 facilities, including Elmore

By Kala Kachmar
Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The nonprofit legal firm that disclosed the ongoing criminal mistreatment of inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka last year has found that similar widespread physical and sexual abuse is occurring at three state men’s facilities.

For six months, the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has been investigating dozens of incidents involving alleged officer-on-inmate abuse and misconduct at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent and Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer.

EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson said he met with Alabama Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas in April to discuss the findings and urge Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) administrators to investigate the incidents and take action against staff.

Stevenson said the investigation started after EJI received dozens of complaints in a short period of time from inmates at Elmore earlier this year. EJI staff spent three months at the facility interviewing inmates and prison staff. The staff says it has confirmed many of the reports.

“This is a black eye on our corrections system and on our state,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee. “It’s inexcusable.”

Stripped and beaten

In the past six months, there have been nearly a dozen reports of prisoners at Elmore having been handcuffed, stripped naked and then beaten by several guards. Some of the inmates have required hospitalization and suffered permanent injuries, according to the EJI report.

The report also contends the warden and high-ranking officials have been involved in some of the beatings and misconduct.

At Donaldson and Bibb, there have been reports of male correctional officers that forced young male inmates to perform sex acts, including oral sex, and then threatened to file disciplinary charges against them if they refused or reported the abuse, the EJI report said.

Two inmates collected physical evidence during their assaults, which was turned over to ADOC officials. The evidence corroborated the reports and the identities of the officers who abused them, but neither was told if any formal action against the officers was taken, according to the report.

“We have urged prosecution and immediate action in all of these cases,” Stevenson said. “But now it’s in the jurisdiction of the department to (take) that action. We prefer state actors address this adequately and responsibly. If that doesn’t happen, we pursue other avenues.”

Thomas said he was already aware of one incident before EJI brought it to his attention, and had asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate. The incident, which is being investigated by the attorney general, involved the use of force by an officer against an inmate that resulted in physical injury.

“Everybody in my agency knows this sort of behavior is not going to be tolerated,” Thomas said. “We are going to continue to vigorously investigate matters when they come to our attention. We’re going to investigate these things and they’re going to be prosecuted.”

More cameras

Thomas said finding solutions is going to take a multipronged strategy. He said he plans to ask for funding in the next budget cycle that will allow the department to purchase more cameras for prisons.

He said they are currently assessing the cameras and monitors they have now.

One thing the EJI found during both the Tutwiler and most recent investigations was inmates weren’t being told the outcome of their complaints, which is a requirement by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. In January, Thomas issued a directive to ensure staff would notify inmates of the results of an investigation.

“We need to incorporate a mechanism in our investigations to have the victim apprised of the results of the investigation,” Thomas said “We want to make sure we’re compliant with the PREA standard.”

Stevenson said many correctional officers who engage in physical and sexual misconduct are transferred to other prisons rather than being fired or criminally prosecuted. Several officers involved in beatings at Tutwiler in Wetumpka were moved to Elmore.

Thomas said whenever a complaint is brought against an officer, there has to be separation between the officer and person who alleged abuse. He said it’s common for officers to be reassigned — to a noncontact post, such as a security perimeter, or to another facility — while the investigation is conducted.

“We have the convenience of doing that in the greater Elmore County area,” Thomas said.

‘A perfect storm’

Stevenson said the warden of a facility plays a critical role in setting the culture and environment, noting that there has been a dramatic increase in problems over the past several years in Alabama.

Ward said the prison oversight committee has plans to meet next month to address some of these issues. He said the committee has the power to demand accountability measures and changes in the corrections system.

“We can’t afford a sloppy corrections system and hope somehow federal courts will turn a blind eye to it,” Ward said. “It’s only a matter of time before overcrowding and the allegations of abuse come together and create a perfect storm for a federal takeover of our prison system.”

Ward said Alabama’s corrections department is one of the most underfunded in the country, which creates an atmosphere that leads to problems. But he said the funding issues are no excuse for the physical abuses that are occurring.

A report by the EJI released last year found that correctional officers and other staff had illegal sexual contact with dozens of women at Tutwiler. The group also said official responses to reports of abuse created an atmosphere of intimidation that discouraged future complaints.

In April, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation at Tutwiler to determine if there were civil rights violations, criminal violations of unconstitutional conduct occurring at the prison.

Stevenson said he’s been in contact with the department, and the investigation is still ongoing.

Legal action by inmates has been taken against both the state and correctional officers for the Tutwiler problems. But Stevenson said the Justice Department will have more leverage to process complaints against the state.

The U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC) spent three days at Tutwiler last fall for a report requested by Thomas.

The report found a multitude of problems at the prison, including a failure to report sexual abuse of inmates. The report also said the facility had a culture of “intimidation and undue harshness.”

Fatal beating

Since December, after the report was released, Thomas began implementing new policies to take corrective action. One is discontinuing the policy of segregating inmates who make a complaint. Another is ensuring that inmates are informed of the outcome of an investigation.

In 2011, EJI filed a complaint with the Justice Department about the fatal beating of 24-year-old Rocrast Mack by correctional officers at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton. Federal prosecutors charged four former prison employees in his murder.

Matthew Davidson and Scottie Glenn pleaded guilty to civil rights violations and conspiring to cover up the crime. Former corrections Lt. Michael Smith was convicted last month in federal court in Montgomery, and former correctional officer Joseph Sanders entered a guilty plea in federal court this week.

“There are places (in the country) where there is no tolerance for this kind of behavior,” Stevenson said. “Officers are terminated and you create a culture where you don’t see the kinds of problems you see in (Alabama) prisons.”

Additional Facts

The following is a summary of the Equal Justice Initiative’s findings at the three men’s prison facilities.

• Elmore Correctional Facility: There is a dangerous group of officers at Elmore Correctional Facility who are targeting restrained prisoners for severe physical abuse.

Earlier this year, a man was severely beaten by multiple officers in three different parts of the prison while he was handcuffed in leg shackles, the report said. The inmate was beaten until he was unconscious, and then transferred to the prison infirmary. Medical staff determined his injuries were too severe to treat, so he was transferred to Jackson Hospital, where he was treated for numerous facial fractures and severe eye damage.

One man was allegedly stripped naked, handcuffed and beaten by a group of officers in front of dozens of inmates who were yelling for them to stop. When he returned to the facility after being treated for injuries sustained in the beating, the warden reportedly paraded him around the facility as an example to others.

• Donaldson and Bibb correctional facilities: Male officers have forced young male prisoners to perform sex acts.

There were several instances where male officers coerced inmates by threatening to charge them with disciplinary violations if they refused to perform sex acts on the officers.

At Bibb, an inmate was ordered into an officer’s bathroom and ordered to perform oral sex on him. When the inmate reported the assault, he received no response from the Alabama Department of Corrections internal investigations unit. He also received no response to his request that the officer be criminally charged for sexually assaulting him.

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