Understaffing, overcrowding and a lack of healthcare fueled a crisis in a state with the world’s highest incarceration rate
Last year 270 people in Alabama’s prisons died, the most of any calendar year on record. The deaths included 19 homicides. Those in prison, their family members and prison advocates have used TikTok to highlight the degrading conditions in Alabama’s prisons, even as the Department of Justice is preparing an unprecedented legal action against the state.
Severe understaffing, overcrowding, violence, drug use and a lack of adequate medical and mental healthcare and basic necessities have fueled a crisis in the state’s prisons for years. But the horrific state of Alabama’s prisons has begun to attract new attention as those affected have posted videos using the #prisontoks and #alabama hashtags to highlight the parlous state of affairs.
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Bernard Jemison, currently incarcerated at Ventress correctional facility in Clayton, Alabama, has posted numerous videos on social media depicting fellow prisoners who say they’ve received little to no medical attention for chronic or debilitating medical issues. Individuals in the videos discuss ailments ranging from untreated psoriasis infections, broken ribs, untreated surgery complications and chronic untreated pain.
One of the prisoners in Jemison’s videos, William Davis, has a swollen face due to an infection and points out he is not provided with adequate colostomy bags for his chronic medical condition.
“His face is entirely swollen, over a week now and he still hasn’t received treatment. Colostomy patients should get 60 bags a month. William only gets 10 a month,” Jemison said. “Alabama healthcare towards prisoners is a joke. In Alabama, people are dying because steps that could be taken – that would cost a little money – are not being taken simply because we are incarcerated people.”
Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and sixth highest of all states in the US with its prison system operating at 168% capacity. About 19,000 men were in Alabama’s prison system as of January in facilities designed to house 11,000 people.
The US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Alabama in 2020 over dangerous and overcrowding conditions, with a trial set to begin next year. The case was filed under the Trump administration – not known for its support of incarcerated people’s rights – and signed by the then US attorney general, William Barr, after lengthy attempts to negotiate a settlement and pre-empt the unprecedented intervention.
Alabama has attempted to build its way out of the problem – spending nearly $1bn on a new prison near Montgomery, Alabama, and pledging an additional $600m to build a second mega-prison by 2026.
The plans were criticized by the justice department in a 2019 letter, stating building new facilities alone will not solve Alabama’s prison issues.
Staffing shortages have exacerbated the crisis.
The Alabama department of corrections has reported a vacancy rate of nearly 64% in security staffing. Several correctional officers in Alabama have been arrested over the past year for corruption, bribery and misconduct.
Footage shows sick Alabama prisoner describing lack of care – video
At his facility, Jemison said, there are only three correctional officers working at a time supervising about 1,200 prisoners.
“It’s not safe and it’s dangerous for the officers,” said Jemison. “The shortage of staff, no security, overcrowding, this lack of medical care, lack of mental health care … basically turn the mental health crisis into criminal convictions so the majority in here are people with drug addictions and people with mental health issues that shouldn’t be here.”
The state of Alabama closed down most hospitals for the mentally ill in 2013, while prisons and jails saw an influx of prisoners suffering from mental health issues after the cuts and closures.
Alabama has also been criticized for soaring rates of parole denials and harsh sentences that have fueled mass incarceration rates and prison overcrowding in the state.
June Brewer has seen just how bad conditions have become. Her 24-year-old son is currently serving a five-year sentence in Alabama, and was transferred to Fountain correctional facility in Atmore, Alabama, in January, where his mother said he has struggled just to get a bed because people are allowed to hoard and sell them within the prison.
“I bought a bed for him in January when he got to Fountain. In April, an inmate was assigned the bed I had bought so he was kicked out of bed,” Brewer said. Her son had to sleep on the floor. “I called everyone I could think of. No one cared. He didn’t have a bed for two weeks.”
Brewer said she ended up paying $75 to another incarcerated person for him to get a bunk bed, after paying $50 for the first bed.
She also said her son had been too scared to even try to get his depression medication, h had never been offered any classes, and that he had lost a significant amount of weight due to the poor quality of the food.
Jemison said the lack of staffing and safety issues had contributed to worsening conditions for issues such as food, where stealing in the prison kitchen by other prisoners is common, resulting in food shortages and reduced meal portions.
“Summertime, that’s when things get the worst because of the heat and a lot of the time they don’t have any water to drink. They don’t have ice, they don’t have anything,” said Rhonda Averhart, an advocate for prisoners in Alabama, referring to the lack of air conditioning and fans that contributes to a lack of safety and violence within the overcrowded prisons in excessive heat.
“If they started granting paroles and clearing the prisons, things might get a little better. These guys are overcrowded and it’s hard on them,” she added.
The Alabama department of corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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