A cell phone video taken inside an Alabama prison dorm and posted on Facebook shows water standing on the concrete floor, holes in the tile floor of the shower area, and metal sinks that don’t appear to be working.
Two officials who advocate for criminal justice reform said the video is the latest evidence that inmates live in conditions that violate the Constitution, a situation they said calls for an urgent response.
The Alabama Department of Corrections asked AL.com not to publicize the video because it’s a crime for inmates to have cell phones, which the agency says are used to sell drugs and carry out other illegal activity.
“Cell phones facilitate the drug trade, extortion schemes, threats to public figures as well as crime victims, violence, and much more,” ADOC Press Secretary Samantha Rose said in a statement. “... Our Department is working tirelessly to maintain calm in our facilities as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. By publishing this video, thus enabling the blatant violation of our rules, AL.com negatively will impact the very delicate and sensitive correctional environment.”
The ADOC also says it has made no secret of the dilapidated conditions of Alabama prisons. The Gov. Kay Ivey administration has drawn attention to the deterioration as it pursues a plan for private developers to build three men’s prisons that the state would lease and operate.
“The challenges with our aging and flawed facilities will not going away – in fact, they are getting worse every day,” Rose said. “Our Engineering Department and Facilities Management teams work tirelessly to combat issues related to failing infrastructure, but face incredible resourcing challenges - both monetary and in human capital.”
But prison reform advocates said the video shows a dorm unfit to house inmates while waiting two or three years for new prisons to be built.
Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, said the video is evidence of the state’s failure to respond with urgency after allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice that it holds inmates under conditions that violate the Constitution. EJI is a nonprofit organization that represents inmates it believes were wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced and supports reforms to reduce the prison population. The organization has also investigated the state’s prisons and issued reports that came in advance of federal investigations.
“These are consistent with conditions that we’ve observed in other prisons in Alabama,” Morrison said. “And we’ve received scores of complaints that conditions have deteriorated in the last several months. The problem isn’t the age of the prisons. It’s the management and maintenance of the facilities. I think what this video captures is the need to act with urgency to address the violence, the misconduct, the deplorable conditions.
“A long-term construction plan isn’t responsive to this crisis.”
The narrator of the video recorded at Bullock Correctional Facility says the wet floors are the result of rain pouring in through leaking windows. He says inmates are at risk from injury because of the holes in the shower floor. He says the dorm is under quarantine for coronavirus.
The ADOC confirmed that a dorm at Bullock is under a “level-one quarantine” for COVID-19, which means that inmates and staff are monitored closely for signs and symptoms of the coronavirus, the ADOC said. The “level-one” status allows inmates time outside the dorm for meals and exercise, the ADOC said.
Rose said the ADOC checked on the problems shown in the video after becoming aware of it.
“After examining all toilets and sinks in the dormitories, the ADOC can confirm only one sink and one toilet were inoperable – this toilet and sink are currently under repair by the facility maintenance staff,” Rose said. “It was also noted that a few sinks were missing buttons, but were still functional (as you can see in the video).
“Our Facilities Management team has been and will continue to perform regular maintenance of sinks in our correctional facilities to ensure that inmates have adequate access to allow for regular and consistent handwashing throughout this pandemic, and to imply otherwise would be false.”
The ADOC gives daily updates on its efforts to control COVID-19 in cramped prison conditions. As of Monday, the agency says 18 inmates and two employees have died from the virus. A total of 302 inmates and 346 employees have tested positive.
“The ADOC has implemented numerous preventative measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities. ... Adequate and consistent healthcare services are being provided, and inmates are provided with multiple face masks, antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer,” Rose said in the ADOC statement.
The Legislature allocated $200 million of the state’s federal coronavirus relief funds to the ADOC. That’s out of the $1.9 billion the state received under the CARES Act.
So far, the ADOC has spent $3.9 million of that on personal protective equipment, $2.6 million on COVID-19 related staff leave, and $300,000 on infrared thermal cameras and computer equipment, Rose said.
“The Department continues to pursue other appropriate supplies and services for COVID-19 mitigation to be purchased with allocated funds and in accordance with the CARES Act parameters,” Rose said.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has led prison reform efforts in the Legislature, said the Bullock video underscores the need for Ivey’s plan for new prisons, announced in February 2019. The administration is evaluating proposals from two private developer teams for the three prisons. The state would lease them for up to a total of $88 million a year for 30 years. An announcement on proposed locations is expected this month or in September.
“This video clearly demonstrates that these buildings are falling in,” Ward said. “Over the last two years we’ve actually had to close two prison facilities because of these same type of conditions. So, you don’t need to try to build your way out of overcrowding. But this video demonstrates exactly why you’ve got to have new facilities.”
Ward said new prisons are a key component in a larger overall approach to fixing the prison system.
“You’re building so you can have programming, you can have treatment, you don’t have the conditions like we saw in that video,” Ward said.
Ward said he expects the ADOC to continue closing some of the worst housing units and moving inmates.
The state announced in January it was closing the main unit at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore because of deterioration, requiring the transfer of about 600 inmates to other prisons. In 2018, the ADOC closed Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore County because of decay of the prison, built in 1939. The ADOC took the media on a tour of Draper before the closing, showing conditions, like broken and wet floors, similar to what the Bullock video shows.
Carla Crowder, executive director of the Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit that opposes the prison building plan and supports sentencing reforms, said the Bullock video shows the state’s failure to provide basic needs for inmates despite a prison budget that has increased substantially in recent years.
“This video highlights Alabama’s desperate need for alternatives to incarceration given that ADOC is unable to safely house everyone in its custody,” Crowder said.
The ADOC budget from the state General Fund has increased by 36% over the last five years, to $544 million next year.
“Now the taxpayers of Alabama are being asked to hand over another $2.6 billion to this dysfunctional, unaccountable state agency,” Crowder said. “But the mega prisons that Governor Ivey and Commissioner (Jeff) Dunn want will not open for 2-3 years at a minimum. Are these men going to be forced to live in a flooded prison with crumbling bathrooms and broken sinks until then?
“These conditions are unacceptable anytime, but with COVID raging through the prisons, these conditions are deadly. According to ADOC’s own reporting, 300 incarcerated people have fallen sick with COVID, including 37 at Bullock. ADOC has reported that 18 incarcerated people have died from COVID.”
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a report in April 2019 alleging there was reasonable cause to believe that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons violate the Constitution because of a failure to protect inmates from violence and a failure to maintain safe, sanitary prisons. In July, the DOJ issued a second report alleging “a pattern and practice” of excessive use of force by correctional staff against inmates.
For more than a year, the Ivey administration and the ADOC have talked about the poor physical conditions of the state’s prisons that are the result of decades of neglect. They have said most of the state’s existing men’s prisons are too costly to repair and maintain.
“The need for new, better designed facilities is paramount, as we have exhausted our band-aid solutions,” Rose said.
ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has said that new prisons are a key component in what he said is the agency’s plan to transform prisons from facilities that warehouse inmates to facilities that can offer education and rehabilitation programs. The commissioner told legislators last month that he expects an announcement on new prison locations in August or September.
EJI’s Morrison said a plan for new prisons should not be an excuse for not doing more to improve current conditions.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars studying and defending the Corrections Department over the last five years,” Morrison said. “But conditions have only gotten worse.”