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National

Department Of Justice Investigates Overcrowding At Alabama Prisons

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alabama's prison system is in crisis. Chronic overcrowding and short staffing have created a violent climate behind bars. Some say it's unmanageable. A new federal civil rights investigation is looking at whether the conditions in the state's prisons are constitutional. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Outsiders got a look at the violence inside Alabama lockups last spring with this social media video from Holman prison, the maximum security facility that houses Alabama's death row.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE: Here what going on at Holman free tonight.

ELLIOTT: An inmate, his face covered with a white rag, used a contraband cell phone to video the uprising. He's walking through the chaotic open dorm to a guard station that inmates have set on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE: It going down in the [expletive], man.

ELLIOTT: A warden and guard were stabbed, and the prison was put on lockdown. But violence and unrest has persisted. Last month, a guard was stabbed to death by an inmate in a mess hall.

Now the U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation that will look at whether prisoners are safe from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of both other prisoners and guards. Angeline Cockrell of Birmingham says investigators will find shocking results.

ANGELINE COCKRELL: The inmates are scared of the guards, and the guards are scared of the inmates. So that's just a disaster waiting to happen.

ELLIOTT: Her 24-year-old son is locked up in a north Alabama prison. He's due for release early next year. She hopes he makes it.

COCKRELL: As a mother, I worry each and every day. I cry every night. I'm constantly in fear that something could happen, and if something was to happen, that they wouldn't be able to get to the situation and diffuse it in time.

JEFFERSON DUNN: We are the most overcrowded system in the country.

ELLIOTT: Jefferson Dunn is the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. He says the federal probe is no surprise, and the state will cooperate. The problem, Dunn says, is that prisons are at nearly double capacity with staffing levels that are half what they should be.

DUNN: And so you put those two things together, and it doesn't take much to come to the situation in which you've just got not enough correctional officers supervising too many inmates.

ELLIOTT: He and his boss, Republican Governor Robert Bentley, proposed building four new prisons and closing 14 others, but the costly plan was rejected by state lawmakers. Federal scrutiny of Alabama's prison system is nothing new. It was under federal court control in the 1970s and has come close several times since.

Just two years ago, the state agreed to reforms in its women's prison after a federal investigation found a nearly two-decade history of abuse, including officers forcing women to have sex in exchange for basic sanitary supplies. Republican State Senator Cam Ward says public safety is at stake.

CAM WARD: These facilities aren't allowing these officers to do their job. Then what you really have is the inmates running the house, and the officers are guest there.

ELLIOTT: Ward chairs the prison oversight committee and has helped push some sentencing reforms in recent years, but he says that alone can't help unless there's political will to invest in updating Alabama's antiquated prison system.

WARD: There's no constituency out there in the public saying, we want more money for prisons. It's just not a political priority.

ELLIOTT: He warns that could lead to a costly federal takeover of Alabama's prison system. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.