By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday accused Alabama’s state prisons of regularly violating the constitutional rights of male inmates by failing to protect them from violence and sexual abuse.
In a letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, prosecutors and the country’s top civil rights law enforcement official said they had evidence the state was violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“We have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in the Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions,” the letter said.
The review looked into prisons housing only male inmates.
The letter, which cited overcrowding and “serious deficiencies” in staffing levels and supervision, ordered the prison system to correct the problems within 49 days or the state could face a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The Justice Department said it also had the option of having U.S. Attorney General William Barr intervene in related private lawsuits against the state prison system.
The letter was signed by Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. attorneys for the southern, northern and middle districts of Alabama.
The investigation was first initiated in October 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration, and before Jeff Sessions, who is from Alabama, became the attorney general under President Donald Trump in early 2017, the department said.
The Alabama governor acknowledged the Justice Department’s findings and said the state’s Department of Corrections had been actively working to fix the issues.
The department “has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Ivey said in a statement on her official website.
“Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety.”
The state’s Department of Corrections had been working to bolster the hiring and retention of correctional officers, to prevent prisoners from sneaking contraband into its facilities, and was replacing outdated prisons, the governor said.
The Justice Department said it preferred to resolve the issues with Alabama through a “more cooperative approach” in order to avoid litigation.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum)