By Nelson Oliveira
Rapes. Fatal stabbings. Weapons that resemble swords. Bags filled with meth.
Inmates in the Alabama prison system have likely witnessed any such incidents or seen those items inside their facilities -- perhaps in a single week.
The U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday the state's "dangerous and unsanitary" prison conditions are so common and widespread that they violate the Constitution.
"Prisoner-on-prisoner homicide and sexual abuse is common," the department said in an extraordinary report released Wednesday.
"Prisoners who are seriously injured or stabbed must find their way to security staff elsewhere in the facility or bang on the door of the dormitory to gain the attention of correctional officers. Prisoners have been tied up for days by other prisoners while unnoticed by security staff. Prisoners are often found in unauthorized areas. Some prisoners sleep in dormitories to which they are not assigned in order to escape violence. Prisoners are being extorted by other prisoners without appropriate intervention of management. Contraband is rampant."
The report details numerous shocking findings from a nearly three-year investigation and comes as the Justice Department threatens to sue Alabama.
The probe covered Alabama's 13 men's prisons, which house 16,000 inmates. The investigation did not review women's facilities.
The alleged constitutional violations are "severe" and "systemic," authorities said, and are partly caused by overcrowding, staff shortages, "serious deficiencies" in staffing, ineffective prison management and training, and an inability to stop the flow of drugs and weapons into and within the prisons, the letter states.
A review of a single week in September 2017 found the following:
* Friday: A prisoner at Bibb Correctional Facility was stabbed to death by two other inmates and a fellow inmate who tried to intervene was also stabbed; a Stanton inmate was stabbed multiple times and had to be taken to a hospital by helicopter.
* Saturday: Four prisoners at Elmore beat up a fellow inmate; a prisoner at Ventress was caught with 17 cigarettes laced with drugs, a bag of meth and other substances.
* Sunday: A prisoner at St. Clair woke up from his sleep with two men beating him with a sock filled with metal locks; a prisoner at Ventress was stabbed by two others; two different Ventress inmates were injured in separate incidents; a prisoner at Stanton threatened a correctional officer with a 7-inch knife; another Stanton prisoner reported being sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate.
* Tuesday: A Fountain prisoner set fire to a fellow prisoner's blanket while he was sleeping.
* Wednesday: An Easterling prisoner, who had been sexually assaulted a week earlier, was sexually assaulted again.
* Thursday: A Ventress prisoner was beaten by four others and a different inmate reported being sexually assaulted.
Investigators said it's likely that other serious incidents happened that week, but were not reported.
The Justice Department said Alabama's department of Corrections reported 24 homicides in its facilities between January 2015 and June 2018, but federal investigators found three other deaths that were not properly identified as homicides. In one case, a prisoner died of multiple stab wounds to the head, back, arm and abdomen, but an incident report classified his death as "natural," investigators said.
"Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who oversees the department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement Wednesday.
In January 2018, the mother of a prisoner reported that she and her son were being extorted by one of its fellow inmates. The extortionist reportedly beat her son and threatened him with rape because of an unpaid debt. The woman shared screenshots from text messages she received from that prisoner, which included photos of her son's genitals and threats to chop him into pieces.
During their site visits to those 13 prisons, investigators also found facilities with makeshift showers, leaking urinals, broken toilets and other serious structural issues. A 14th facility, which closed one month after the probe began, was found with open sewage running through a main pathway, the report states.
The investigation included numerous site visits, in-person interviews with more than 270 prisoners and more than 500 phone interviews with prisoners and their family members.
Federal authorities said they're hopeful they can work with Alabama officials to ensure the department of corrections addresses the problems and abides by the constitution.
"We are better than this," Richard Moore, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, said in a statement. "We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment. The task is daunting, but one we must embrace now without reservation."
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