Justice Department Announces Investigation Into Ala. Prison Conditions

As prison strikes spread across the nation, the DOJ will look into conditions in Alabama prisons after inmates and guards expressed concerns. 

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The U.S. Department of Justice will be conducting an investigation into the conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men, it announced in a statement Thursday.

“The investigation will focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions,” the DOJ said in its statement.

The announcement came just a week after guards at the W.C. Holman Correctional Facility staged a work strike, according to Democracy Now!, citing safety concerns and overcrowding at the prison.

Robert Council, a 42-year-old prisoner serving life without parole at Holman, told AL.com that the recent slaying of a corrections officer by an inmate and regular stabbings taking place inside the dormitories likely contributed to the decision of guards not to show up for work.

Council claims that prisoners at the facility are on constant lockdown, and some have not been let out of their cells in three months. Council, who is in solitary confinement, claims that his cell has not been washed in six months.

“The Constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Alabama in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that the state’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm.”

Holman is at 200 percent capacity, and prisoners there went on strike in May over inhumane conditions and slavelike employment conditions. Roughly 38 percent of America’s prisoners work for little or no pay, according to BuzzFeed, helping to run their facilities or producing consumer goods for the state or private companies, something made possible by the 13th Amendment.

BuzzFeed reports that similar strikes over working conditions have happened at prisons in Michigan, Washington state, South Carolina, Ohio and California over the past four weeks.

Inmates from various facilities across the state of Alabama have united to change the conditions inside the prisons and formed the Free Alabama Movement. FAM is supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which acts as a liaison to help prisoners unionize.

As previously reported by The Root, The 13th, a documentary from director Ava DuVernay, focuses on the 13th Amendment—which abolished slavery—and its loophole, making slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional, except for punishment of a crime. This structure has made the prison-industrial complex the oppressive beast that corporations have profited from and that has been affecting black and brown people disproportionately.

The Justice Department said it has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in Alabama but will continue to investigate them under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.