Winter in Unalaska by Sam Zmolek
Your voice in the Aleutians.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alabama Vows To 'Fervently Defend' Prison System Against Justice Department Lawsuit

A sign reading "HELP" is posted in the window of an inmate's cell during a 2019 tour with state officials at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala.
Kim Chandler
A sign reading "HELP" is posted in the window of an inmate's cell during a 2019 tour with state officials at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala.

Alabama corrections officials say they were caught off-guard by a lawsuit this week from the Justice Department alleging dangerous and unconstitutional conditions in the state's prisons.

It's the latest in a long list of legal challenges over a system plagued by deadly violence and neglect.

In a statement, the Alabama Department of Corrections says the agency will "fervently defend" its system against the lawsuit, which it says undermines months of settlement negotiations that it characterized as making good progress.

"On the eve of another settlement session, the DOJ elected to file a lawsuit with zero advance notice or any indication that they were unsatisfied with the process," the statement says.

The talks with the Trump administration have been underway since April 2019when federal investigators found Alabama to be "deliberately indifferent" to a prison system in crisis where violence was common, cruel and pervasive.

Now, the lawsuit argues Alabama is violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of male prisoners by failing to protect them from excessive use of force by guards, failing to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence including sexual abuse and failing to provide safe conditions of confinement. It seeks to force the state to remedy chronic overcrowding and severe understaffing, issues federal judges have cited in judgments against the state over horrendous prison conditions.

Alabama corrections officials say the DOJ lawsuit fails to appreciate ongoing efforts to improve prisons, including hiring more staff, holding prison staff to account for any wrongdoing and making a plan to seek the private development of three large new regional prisons to replace dilapidated state lockups.

Advocates for the incarcerated have long argued that it would take legal action from the federal government to force Alabama to confront the failures of its prison system.

"The same questions arise again for Alabama leaders," says Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. "Now that the State is a defendant in another federal lawsuit and again linked to civil and human rights abuses, will leaders remain silent in the face of this crisis?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.