Attacks on inmates have happened with grim regularity at St. Clair Correctional Facility, one of six maximum-security prisons in Alabama. In recent years, even by the standards of one of the nation’s most dysfunctional prison systems, St. Clair has stood out for its violence, the New York Times reports. “The frequency of assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries is quite simply among the highest I have observed in my 43-year career in corrections,” Steve Martin, who has examined hundreds of prisons nationwide, wrote in a 2016 report prepared for a lawsuit over conditions at St. Clair. The prison reflected “a total breakdown of the necessary basic structures that are required to operate a prison safely,” he tells the Times. In October, the Justice Department announced an investigation into all male prisons in Alabama, a broad inquiry focusing on reports of rampant violence and sex abuse by both inmates and staff members. The prisons are operating at 172 percent of capacity. That is a significant improvement after sentencing reforms, but it has been offset by a sharp decline in the number of corrections officers.
“We’re already the most overcrowded,” said corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn at a legislative hearing. “It won’t be long until we’re the most understaffed and most violent.” As legislators wrangle over ideas to fix the prisons — the current one being a much-disputed and ever-shifting plan to build several “large-scale” prisons to replace most of the old ones — the degeneration of St. Clair looms in the background. A lawsuit on behalf of inmates by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative argues that the bloodshed at St. Clair is due in part to overcrowding, understaffing and shoddy facilities, but perhaps primarily to failures of leadership and “a culture that tolerated violence.” In interviews, more than a dozen current and former officers and inmates agreed.