Inside the federal investigation of Alabama prisons

Recent court filings indicate contentious process
William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility is one of 13 prisons under investigation
William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility is one of 13 prisons under investigation((Source: WBRC))
Updated: Jan. 11, 2019 at 1:25 PM EST
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Since 2016, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has been quietly conducting an investigation of “unparalleled scope” into Alabama’s 13 maximum security prisons for men.

Until recently, no information has been released to the public about the investigation, but recent court filings give a glimpse at intense frustration on both sides.

The DOJ claims in a series of petitions filed in federal court, that Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) has engaged in a pattern of delay and obstruction during the agency’s two-year investigation, refusing to turn over records and ignoring subpoena requests. ADOC insists it has cooperated with the investigation and simply lacks the staff needed to meet the DOJ’s demands.

Relentless violence has continued in Alabama’s beleaguered prison system, including an extraordinarily high rate of murders, assaults and suicides. Records indicate that federal investigators are hearing about the incidents first hand through a toll-free hotline set up in the facilities under investigation, through which inmates can directly contact the DOJ.

“On an almost daily basis, the Department receives calls from prisoners and family members recounting allegations of violence, sexual abuse, and death in Alabama prisons,” attorneys for the DOJ wrote in a court filing dated November 29, 2018. “For many of these allegations, incident reports either do not exist, contain little information, or the identifying coding is incorrect.”

At issue are requests by DOJ investigators for ADOC documents, including investigative files, autopsy reports, individual inmate records and medical documents, prison duty logs and documents tracking adherence to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The DOJ issued a subpoena on May 8, 2017 after it said ADOC failed or refused to produce the vast majority of requested documents.

Despite a three-hour meeting involving both sides and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall a few weeks after the subpoena was served, DOJ investigators claimed they still encountered roadblocks, and asked a federal judge to order ADOC to comply.

On October 24, 2018, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gray M. Borden found that ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn failed to comply with the subpoena.

The ADOC responded by saying it had “worked tirelessly throughout the investigation to prioritize the DOJ’s endless document requests,” while questioning the motives of the investigation, which it argued was too far-reaching and set the DOJ up as “a de facto monitor under the guise of a never-ending investigation.”

“It is evident that the DOJ’s intent is to issue a findings letter that will no doubt cast the ADOC in the worst possible light before initiating a civil action that will further negatively impact staffing and department morale and effectively negate all of the positive changes that have been made to date,” attorneys for ADOC wrote in a court filing dated November 14, 2018.

An adversarial court fight over documents is highly unusual for this type of investigation, according to Joyce White Vance, who helped launch the investigation in 2016 when she was U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District.

“Typically, when states learn they have dangerous conditions in prisons, they work hand in hand with the DOJ,” Vance said. “This usually results in a collaborative effort. States do not want to be sued.”

The type of investigation is known as CRIPA, for Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act, a law passed in 1980 to promote and protect the rights of incarcerated people. Since then over 50 multi-facility and statewide investigations have been authorized. The focus of a CRIPA investigation is to determine whether there are conditions that deprive prisoners of any rights protected by the Constitution.

In Alabama, investigators want to know if there’s a pattern of failing to protect prisoners in ADOC custody from physical harm and sexual abuse by other prisoners, excessive force and sexual abuse by correctional staff, and lack of sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.

According to a filing by ADOC, the agency has met with DOJ officials from Washington D.C. three times, facilitated three “full-scale” site inspections and 12 visits to ADOC facilities for investigators. The agency also claimed it has produced more than 270,000 separate documents and facilitated interviews of 70 employees and 144 inmates.

ADOC has asked the court to set a deadline for the investigation because the subpoena subjects the agency to “undue burden” at a time when ADOC resources are at a minimum. The agency is currently in the remedy phase of a system-wide class action lawsuit over prison mental healthcare, and in the midst of two settlement agreements at Tutwiler Prison for Women and St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.

“Quite simply, two years is enough,” attorneys for ADOC wrote to the court. “If it (DOJ) cannot draw any conclusions based upon the mountain of evidence that is currently in its possession, it never will.”

On December 21, 2018, DOJ funding expired due to the federal government shutdown, so currently the CRIPA investigation is stalled. Calls to the office of U.S. Attorney Jay Town went unanswered. Vance called the CRIPA investigation vitally important and bristled at the suggestion by ADOC attorneys that the DOJ is misusing CRIPA and no longer has proper authorization because a different administration is in place.

“One of the tragedies of this government shutdown is the CRIPA investigation is now on hold,” Vance said. “This is about safe, constitutional conditions for prisoners. That’s not a partisan issue, it’s a matter of law and that didn’t change when President Trump took over.”

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