Alabama governor visits prison that has seen recent violence

AP News
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Posted: Mar 15, 2016 5:19 PM
Alabama governor visits prison that has seen recent violence

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — Alabama faces more prison uprisings unless problems of overcrowding are addressed, Gov. Robert Bentley said Tuesday after he visited a maximum-security facility that has seen two violent riots in the past several days.

Bentley described the William C. Holman Correctional Facility as "archaic" and said the outdated buildings are dangerous for inmates and the people who guard them.

"Part of the prison sentence is a punishment, we know that, but you've got to protect people," Bentley said. "Their lives have to be protected. It not only has to be safe for the inmates; it certainly has to be safe for the guards and the wardens."

Last month, Bentley announced an initiative to build four new prisons — three for men and one for women — to reduce overcrowding and improve safety. The men's facilities would be designed to house at least 3,500 inmates. Most of the existing facilities would be closed.

Republican Sen. Cameron Ward, who has spearheaded prison reform, said the unrest is "no fault at all" of the guards in the facilities.

"You cannot run a corrections system the way we run it, with the amount that we put into it, and expect to have true public safety," Ward said.

In an area where average temperatures will reach the 90s during the summer, Holman is not air-conditioned.

Its long corridors make for poor sight lines, Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn said Tuesday, and there are no centralized locking mechanisms or modern surveillance systems for guards to keep an eye on the 991 inmates, which is nearly double what the facility is designed to hold.

On Friday, an officer trying to break up a fight between two inmates was stabbed. The prison's warden entered the area to try to contain the situation and was stabbed himself, and about 100 prisoners were able to seize control of a hallway outside a prison dormitory and start a fire, Dunn said. Prisoners likely used baby oil as an accelerant, Bentley said.

Both the warden and the officer who was trying to break up the fight are recovering from their injuries, Dunn said, and the inmates responsible for the assault are now separated from the general population.

Three Department of Corrections emergency response teams responded with tear gas to take control of the dorm. Some of the inmates posted photos and video to social media with contraband phones.

On Monday, nearly 70 inmates in the same dorm seized control after officers tried to apprehend a man suspected of stabbing a fellow inmate. An emergency response team was again deployed and will remain on site for the time being, Dunn said, though the facility is currently considered secure.

Dunn said that as long as facilities are modernized, the state should not need to hire more corrections officers.

Bentley's proposed changes would be financed by an $800 million bond issue, which is expected to go before a Senate committee Wednesday.

Ward said he hopes the recent violence at Holman will illustrate for his statehouse colleagues just how dangerous Alabama's prison system is.

"We've got to do better than this," he said.

Even if the bond issue moves quickly through the statehouse, changes in the system will take time. Bentley's office originally projected construction would begin in the fall of 2017 and could last three years.

Bentley said leaders are being as "innovative" as possible to mitigate current problems, but they can't rule out future problems before progress is made.

"Can we guarantee something like this will never happen again?" Bentley said. "No, we cannot guarantee that. Not as long as facilities are like this."

Bentley's push for reform follows several turbulent years for Alabama's prison system.

The Justice Department in 2013 launched a probe at the state's only women's prison, releasing a scathing report that said staff created a "toxic, sexualized environment" where women were regularly harassed and raped.

The Justice Department later filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, and Alabama agreed to install monitoring cameras and put in place new procedures to handle inmate complaints.

In January 2014, inmates in St. Clair's Correctional Facility and Holman staged a coordinated labor strike, demanding pay for their work at prison facilities. Prisoners also protested overcrowding and sanitation issues.