BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Violence has become a growing concern in Alabama’s prisons, an analysis of incident data shows, and prison officials and other experts fear it could become an even bigger problem next year when the system’s overpopulated facilities will be operated on even less money.
Three inmates have been killed in Alabama prisons since this budget year began in October. In the four previous years, prisons had reported, at most, one homicide.
In the 2010-11 year, the Department of Corrections reported no homicides. But it counted 1,397 fights and nonsexual assaults, up from 1,000 the previous year. In addition to an almost 40 percent increase in inmate-on-inmate violence, assaults leading to serious injury doubled, rising from 47 to 95.
Prison officials say that’s a result of better record-keeping. But people who work closely with inmates say the threat is real, leading some prisoners to arm themselves in defense and others to clamor for safer cell space.
“It’s gotten much worse in the last two or three years,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that represents prisoners. “I’ve been hearing from folks that it’s gotten impossible to get into honors dorms because everybody and his cousin is trying to get in.”
Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said the department’s goal is to prevent as many assaults and fights as possible. But violence is an ongoing challenge, he acknowledges, and one that is made more difficult by having too many inmates and too few officers. That problem is likely to get worse in the coming year.
The Department of Corrections’ budget for next year already has been cut $16 million, and there is a potential for an additional $35 million cut, which would mean a “dynamically different prison system,” Thomas said.
“We may have to put it very, very close to a line I’m not comfortable with,” Thomas said.
Already, violence is commonplace in Alabama’s prisons, and not just in the facilities housing what are considered the most hardened criminals. In 2010 and 2011, the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate violence — and the highest rates of assaults causing serious injuries — were in medium-security prisons, according to a Birmingham News analysis of prison reports.
Stevenson and others representing prisoners believe the state’s official counts underestimate the dangers faced by inmates. It’s a suspicion that has been borne out in the past.
The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta filed suit in 2009, claiming inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility in west Jefferson County were at risk of harm because of crowding, short staffing and pervasive violence — contentions backed by correctional officers.
As a result of the suit, the Southern Center discovered the state’s public reports about inmate attacks routinely did not match the prison’s internal records.
Between April 2008 and April 2009, the Department of Corrections’ public reports listed only one assault with serious injury at Donaldson. Internal records showed at least 16 Donaldson inmates were taken to outside hospitals during that time for treatment of serious injuries. Among other things, assaults had left two of the inmates with collapsed lungs, another vomiting and urinating blood, and another blind in one eye, according to court documents.
In August 2010, Alabama prison officials installed a system that keeps better track of any assaults or fights that occur. “We do realize that we have to make sure that the figures we gather are validated and accurate,” Thomas said. “We want to make sure we accurately report those to the public.”
Melanie Velez, a lawyer for the Southern Center who was involved in the case, said she believes reporting is better and Donaldson is safer as a result of the lawsuit, which settled in 2011.
“There was nowhere to go but to improve the situation there,” she said.
But she doesn’t believe Alabama prisons have violence under control. “We receive hundreds of letters a month from people who are incarcerated there and their loved ones,” she said.
Rosemary Collins of Shelby County understands why. An advocate for criminal justice reforms as part of a group called Alabama CURE, she hears regularly from inmates who feel threatened by stabbings and other attacks they see around them. One of the inmates is Collins’ 50-year-old son, Victor Russo, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence at St. Clair Correctional Facility near Springville.
“It’s really scary,” she said.
In the past seven months, at least three inmates have died at the hands of other inmates, according to prison officials.
Jabari Leon Bascomb died of multiple stab wounds he received at St. Clair on Oct. 15, just three days after his 22nd birthday.
John Abraham Rutledge, 30, was found strangled to death in his cell at St. Clair on April 27.
Jeremy Jones, 33, died May 24 after being stabbed during a fight with another inmate at Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent.
For every inmate killed, many others were assaulted.
In the state’s 2011 budget year, the inmate-on-inmate assaults and fights reported by the prison system translated to an annual rate of a little more than 4 per 100 inmates. It’s hard to compare that rate with the department’s historical figures because of changes in the way statistics have been collected and reported over the years.
It’s also difficult to judge Alabama’s record against other states because of the different ways violent incidents can be categorized and tallied.
“I don’t know you can say there’s a benchmark because there are so many factors that can go into that,” said Morris Thigpen, a former Alabama prison commissioner who is now director of the National Institute of Corrections.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults was less than 3 per 100 inmates across all state and federal prisons in 1995 and again in 2000. The agency has since stopped reporting that information, a spokeswoman said.
As of 2011, Tennessee’s Department of Correction reported assaults at a rate of about 2.5 incidents per 100 inmates, while Georgia’s reported rate was 4.5 per 100 inmates and North Carolina’s rate approached 11 per 100 inmates.
At best, though, tracking violence behind bars is an imperfect science.
The Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University has found the numbers reported by prison systems are consistently lower than the numbers reported by inmates.
Jing Shi, a research analyst and statistician for the center, said about 20 percent of inmates reported in a 2005 survey that they’d been physically assaulted just in the preceding six months. A key was that researchers asked about specific behaviors, such as slapping and kicking, that inmates might not even think to report as an assault, she said.
Shi said research has linked the prevalence of violence to a range of things, including the way a prison is designed and the way it is run.
In Alabama, a key problem has been the intersection of get-tough criminal policies and anemic funding for prisons. As it stands, Alabama prisons house almost twice as many inmates as they were designed to hold, and they have an 11-to-1 ratio of inmates to correctional officers. In 2005, Alabama ratio’s was better, at 9-to-1, and it was still the worst of any state, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“I think Alabama has been very fortunate, given how understaffed they have been through the years, to have been able to maintain as safe facilities as they have,” Thigpen said.
E.J. “Mac” McArthur, the chief of the Alabama State Employees Association, said to the extent peace has been maintained so far, it’s a credit to seasoned correctional officers. “Regrettably,” he said, “I think we’re living on borrowed time.”
In March, Kim Thomas took the unusual step of leading news reporters on a tour through St. Clair Correctional Facility to highlight the dangerous conditions resulting from overcapacity, understaffed prisons. Thomas pleaded not only for more money for prisons but also for sentencing reforms.
Over the past decade, drug courts and other initiatives have helped control the prison population by diverting thousands of convicts into community corrections programs. Even so, Thomas said, the prison population has continued to grow. Legislators, who have added to the problem by continually creating new crimes and increasing the penalties, passed a measure this year to try to slow the progression. But the measure, which will make it easier for nonviolent offenders to avoid incarceration, offers no short-term fix for prison crowding or the violence it fuels.
“You put enough water in a balloon, it’s going to bust sooner or later,” said Capt. Lloyd Wallace, who works at Limestone Correctional Facility and is president of the 500-member Alabama Correctional Organization.
Wallace said inmates aren’t the only ones at risk. That’s why his group joined with inmates in the Donaldson case to try to address the safety issues. But what he considers the core problem, short staffing, is getting worse throughout the prison system, he said.
“Our staff is lower now than I’ve seen it in years,” Wallace said.
And in the short term, it is more likely to get worse than better. The Legislature cut the prison agency’s budget by a little more than 4 percent for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins in October. And even that amount depends on voters approving a transfer from the Alabama Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund next September.
As of February, the department had fewer than 2,300 correctional officers, less then 65 percent of the authorized number. Thomas said he worries the count will continue to slide. If the worst budget cuts come to pass, the system could be unable to operate safely and might be required to release large numbers of prisoners, he said.
Advocates for prisoners agree staffing and crowding are huge issues. But they say the prison system also has helped foster dangerous conditions by not attacking violence more aggressively, whether it comes at the hands of inmates or staff.
Just this past month, the U.S. Justice Department said it would look into reports that employees had been sexually abusing inmates at the Tutwiler women’s prison near Wetumpka. Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative requested the investigation, saying that at least two Tutwiler inmates had gotten pregnant by guards in recent years and many others had been raped or subjected to sexual advances.
While some offending employees were fired or dismissed, Stevenson told the Justice Department that Tutwiler also retaliated against women who lodged complaints about sexual assaults.
Velez said the issue is similar to physical violence in prisons.
“It’s definitely a combination of factors that include overcrowding and understaffing but also a real reluctance on the part of Alabama corrections officials to realize they have a problem,” she said. “In order for there to be a real systemic change to the culture of violence that permeates Alabama prisons, the Department of Corrections has to recognize that it has a real problem.”
Instead, she and other lawyers say the department fails to protect inmates from assaultive staff and fellow inmates. “They’re letting people fight,” said Stevenson. “They’re not responding in any meaningful way.”
Stevenson is reluctant to call for prosecution of inmates involved in prison clashes; many end up arming themselves and going on the offensive because they have been vulnerable, victimized and unprotected, he said. But, he said, “If you’re only going to do time in segregation for a violent assault, there are going to be more violent assaults.”
Thomas disputes the contention that the prison system doesn’t take the issue seriously.
“We don’t want violence in our facilities,” he said. “It puts our officers in danger, and we are responsible for protecting the inmates.”
Stevenson said society at large has a stake in ensuring that inmates are protected from violence in prison.
“Most people are going to be released,” he said. “Torturing, abusing and assaulting people over many years and then releasing them to the public is not a sensible public safety strategy.”