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The Everyday Brutality of America’s Prisons

It's not just Alabama. Inmates across the country are living—and dying—in horrific conditions.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division released a summary of its findings on the state of Alabama’s prisons. The accounts are stomach-churning: The New York Times noted that one prisoner had been lying dead for so long that “his face was flattened,” while another “was tied up and tortured for two days.” A dive into the 53-page report reveals yet more horror. One prisoner was doused with bleach and beaten with a broken mop handle. Another was attacked with shaving cream so hot that it caused chemical burns, requiring treatment from an outside hospital.

It’s hardly news that American prisons and jails can be dangerous places. But the Justice Department’s report mirrors other recent accounts of inmate deaths and violence across the country that, taken together, paint a grim picture of the brutality that occurs behind prison walls—and the horrifying consequences of America’s indifference to it.

Two years in the making, the federal investigation of men’s prisons in Alabama found them plagued with “severe, systemic, and exacerbated” violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. Rates of prisoner-on-prisoner violence have roughly doubled in the state over the past five years, with a homicide rate eight times the national average. Guards told federal investigators that half to three-quarters of prisoners have some kind of improvised weapon. “A weapon that was essentially a small sword was recovered at St. Clair in 2017,” the report said.

Sexual violence is also ubiquitous. The report found that prison staff “accept the high level of violence and sexual abuse ... as a normal course of business, including acquiescence to the idea that prisoners will be subjected to sexual abuse as a way to pay debts accrued to other prisoners.” Alabama officials routinely declared reports of sexual violence as “unsubstantiated” if the survivor declined to press charges, even if he named his attacker and there was other evidence to support the allegation. The Justice Department also found that officials discouraged prisoner reports of sexual assault by regularly dismissing allegations as consensual “homosexual activity.”

The Justice Department attributes this violence to an ouroboros of understaffing and overcrowding. The report found that Alabama’s prison system is understaffed by more than two-thirds. Even the most well-staffed prison, with 75 percent of the necessary employees, was described as “dangerously understaffed.” To make up the shortfall, prison officials regularly force guards to work an additional four hours past their twelve-hour shifts. Meanwhile, investigators estimated that Alabama had a prison occupancy rate of 182 percent of its capacity. Though the state has taken some efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent prisoners in the system, facility closures kept the overall occupancy levels roughly the same.

This report came shortly after a damning investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting, KUOW, and the Northwest News Network found that at least 306 people have died in Oregon and Washington jails since 2008, often from suicide and other preventable causes. But the actual total is unclear because officials in both states haven’t comprehensively tracked how many people die in the government’s custody. “State lawmakers who could improve funding, staff training or standards have taken little action,” the report said. “They say they are in the dark about how many people have even died in jail, let alone how to prevent those deaths. As a result, long-festering problems avoid the spotlight.”

Jails hold a far greater number of people than prisons, and often include people who are awaiting trial and thus haven’t been found guilty of a crime. They also function as America’s social institution of last resort—a place where people struggling with drug addiction or severe episodes of mental illnesses are sent when all else fails. Chicago’s Cook County Jail, one of the nation’s largest pre-trial detention centers, is also effectively the largest mental health hospital in the United States. It’s no surprise that funneling at-risk individuals into a hostile environment can have fatal consequences.

The problem isn’t isolated, either. Four hundred and twenty-eight prisoners died in Florida’s prisons in 2017, amounting to a 20 percent leap over previous years. In Mississippi, 16 prisoners died in the state’s custody last August alone. Some of them may have died from natural causes or unpreventable problems. But that’s not always the case. Arizona regulators testified last month that multiple prisoners in state facilities had died from inadequate healthcare services by a private provider. Perhaps the most famous death in recent years was Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop in 2015. Bland warned officials during her intake procedure that she had made suicide attempts in the past, but they took no extraordinary measures.

How widespread is the problem? It’s hard to tell because the United States generally does a poor job of collecting criminal justice data. The Justice Department faulted Alabama prison officials for misrecording apparent homicides in their facilities, making them seem safer than they actually are in government figures. The Pacific Northwest news organizations also found that neither Oregon nor Washington comprehensively track deaths because jail officials instead report their facilities’ statistics to federal officials—but they do so on a voluntary basis.

This willful ignorance is almost as troubling as the deaths themselves. It suggests that too many states see prison and jail brutality as somehow normal. Not every death in custody may be preventable, but a great many of them are. When public officials don’t act with the appropriate haste to save people under their protection, too many prisoners face what amounts to a death sentence—one for which they were never charged and never tried.