Ala. settles suit over conditions at tough prison

AP News
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Posted: Apr 21, 2011 6:49 PM
Ala. settles suit over conditions at tough prison

Alabama will increase staffing at its highest-security prison, disclose reports of inmate violence there, seek outside help to eliminate prisoner weapons and fix leaky roofs to settle a federal lawsuit filed by inmates over conditions at the penitentiary.

The changes are part of an agreement announced Thursday between the state and lawyers for inmates, who alleged in their suit that Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham was unconstitutionally crowded and dangerous. Corrections officials denied conditions were that bad but filed court papers confirming a settlement.

It wasn't immediately clear how much the changes would cost the cash-strapped corrections agency, but inmate lawyer Sarah Geraghty said the lawsuit had already helped improve the overcrowded prison.

"Conditions at Donaldson are not yet where they need to be," said Geraghty. "But today Donaldson is far less chaotic, dangerous, and crowded than it was before this case was filed."

The prison, named for a slain corrections officer and home to one of Alabama's two death row cellblocks for men, was initially designed to hold about 700 men but was stuffed with some 1,500 inmates at the end of last year. Its population includes hundreds of men who were considered too great a security risk to be held anywhere else.

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights filed suit on behalf of inmates in 2009 over conditions they maintained were unconstitutionally cruel, including rampant stabbings and beatings, and overcrowding that was so bad that three prisoners were forced to share cells only 7 feet-by-10 feet.

The state denied that conditions were unconstitutional, but a professional organization of prison guards took the unusual step of filing papers that supported some of the inmates' claims.

Corrections officials addressed some complaints long before the settlement, including ending the practice of triple-bunking prisoners. The department is fixing the leaky roof and other maintenance problems in a statewide repair program, said spokesman Brian Corbett.

"We have a $90 million facility upgrade under way, and Donaldson will get some of that," said Corbett.

The Department of Correction said it was committed to improving the safety of both prisoners and officers at Donaldson and pointed out the type of inmates it holds.

"The state's most violent criminals are housed there: Men who were violent on the streets, and who continue to exhibit violent behavior behind bars," the department said in a statement.

Inmate attorneys said prison officials also agreed to keep officers in many inmate dorms around the clock, maintain minimum staffing levels and seek help from the National Institute of Corrections in reducing the number of weapons and other contraband at Donaldson. The state will rearrange dorms so officers have clear lines of sight and provide documentation to the inmates' lawyers about violence at Donaldson, they said.

The lawsuit could be reactivated if the state doesn't make all the required changes within a year, court documents show.