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Michael Harriot

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Alabama runs the most violent prison system in America. Inmates in Alabama’s prisons are killed at nearly nine times the national rate. Families have been devastated. The state doesn’t seem to have answers. A study by a criminal justice and civil rights organization concluded that money won’t fix it. Even Donald Trump’s Justice Department called the southern state’s correction system “unconstitutional.”

In 2019, 13 people were killed inside Alabama’s prisons, and the 60 slayings since 2010 is a tenfold increase from the previous decade. The national homicide rate for state prisons is 7 per 100,000 inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest numbers.

In 2019, Alabama’s homicide rate is 62 per 100,000.

But it’s not just the killings. In May, a federal judge ruled that “severe and systemic inadequacies” in the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (ADOC) mental health care program led to a startling number of inmate suicides. Most of the state’s correctional facilities don’t have air conditioning. Incarcerated Alabamians have been held for ransom inside the prisons. Corrections officers have been charged with murder, extortion and sexual assault.

And in April, the Department of Justice concluded a two-year investigation by noting, as reports:

The DOJ concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions in men’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment because of a failure to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and a failure to provide prisoners with safe conditions. The report said Alabama prisons have the highest homicide rate in the nation and that violence has increased dramatically in the last five and a half years.

“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision; overcrowding; ineffective housing and classification protocols; inadequate incident reporting; inability to control the flow of contraband into and within the prisons, including illegal drugs and weapons; ineffective prison management and training; insufficient maintenance and cleaning of facilities; the use of segregation and solitary confinement to both punish and protect victims of violence and/or sexual abuse; and a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive,” the report says.”

The report detailed one week where two inmates watched for guards while others stabbed another person to death. Another prisoner was beaten with a sock filled with metal locks. One prisoner’s blanket was set on fire while he was sleeping and another prisoner was forced to perform oral sex at knifepoint. The study also found an overdose and a mysterious death the same week.

On Monday, the Economic Justice Institute in Montgomery, Ala., released a damning report that can be summed in one succinct sentence:

Alabama’s prisons are fucked up.

The report notes that the state has dramatically increased spending on its prisons, has enacted criminal justice reform laws and has reduced the number of nonviolent offenders. In fact, Alabama’s prisons has a lower proportion of violent inmates than the national average. But still, the prisons are becoming more overcrowded, more violent and more corrupt.

“Since 2018, at least six officers at the rank of sergeant or above—as well as three members of senior Alabama Department of Corrections leadership (an associate commissioner and two wardens)—have been suspended, resigned, or been arrested for allegations of sexual misconduct and physical abuse of incarcerated people, including at least one incident in which an incarcerated person died,” the report notes.

The EJI reports that the state is also the most overcrowded in the country and one of the most understaffed. In a state that is 26 percent black, in 2018, the prison population was 56 percent black and 43 percent white.

So how does one fix it?

Well, no one has quite figured out that part yet. But I have a theory.

Alabama ranks 50th in education, 46th in health care and 45th in opportunity, according to U.S. News. It has the seventh-highest poverty rate, the sixth highest infant mortality rate and the third-lowest life expectancy. The state also has more gun violence than every state except Alaska and only Louisiana has a higher homicide rate than Alabama.

Why would anyone fear death, violence or prison if they already lived in Alabama?

So here’s how you fix Alabama’s prison system:

You have to fix Alabama.