Fraught with drugs, violence, contraband and dilapidated living conditions, the details of life behind bars in Alabama sound more like that of a bad movie than a state prison system.
Alabama has some of the highest prison death rates in the nation, tying Maine for third place in homicides per 100,000 inmates but falling behind Oklahoma and South Carolina, according to DOJ figures. In overall deaths per 100,000, Alabama is in fourth place behind Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
1819 News recently spoke with an Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) correctional officer in a major prison in central Alabama. For his protection, his identity has been withheld.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Alabama concerning poor prison sanitation, violence between inmates, excessive force from staff and sexual assault. According to the officer, conditions in his facility and others are worsening daily.
"On a regular daily basis, the inmates go about their normal day, they check out for trade school, and then we open it up, they go walk around, play basketball, catch the snack line, store, whatever. We stay in the dorms. We usually have someone go to the hospital because they're high. Every now and again, we smack one or two around if we have to. Normally, that's what we do on a daily basis. Sometimes, we have to take one to the center that has to do with PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) if an inmate gets raped. They're big on that because, being a male facility, a lot of that goes on between prisoners and stuff. Or, we have to take one to the hospital because they got stabbed or beat up real bad or got their head swelled up. So that's an average day. That's a good day."
According to Alabama's latest PREA reports, in 2021, there were 475 reported cases of sexual abuse, harassment, misconduct or contact between inmates or between staff and inmates. Of those, only five were substantiated, and 115 were found to be unfounded.
According to the officer, many cases go unreported within the system due to inmates' fear of reprisal for speaking up.
"It's been happening a lot lately," the officer continued. "It's like every two to three days. Every third day or once a week, you'll get one saying, 'I've been raped,' or you get one that says, 'I've been raped, but I'm not going to say nothing,' because they don't want to go to the PREA officer."
According to the officer, inmates reporting sexual assault are evaluated, tested and segregated from the general population. The case is supposed to be investigated by a PREA officer. If there is insufficient evidence, the inmate is sent to another facility.
Aside from the violence, the drugs and contraband, such as weapons and cell phones, are a constant plague on the prison system. According to the officer, most contraband comes in via prison staff. This is accomplished through either cooperation or a lax adherence to screening protocols.
"By the regulations, how it's supposed to be done, you're supposed to take your shoes off, your socks off, empty your pockets, and they check your bag and pat you down from head to foot when you start your shift," he said. "That's how it's supposed to be done. But, depending on what's going on with the shift before, you don't get shook down."
He continued, "It's coming in by officers on a regular basis. It's just a matter of where, when and what shift. Sometimes, it's thrown over the fence. Being thrown over the fence, it varies from month to month. Some months, you could get it thrown over two or three times a month. Some months, you may not see it at all. But most of it is coming in from the officers. Because, normally, when they come in, they don't get shook down properly. They bring it in in bags of food, stuff it in like a bag of watermelon, wrapped up. Stuff like that."
According to the guard, inmates typically recruit new officers, and the appeal for additional money is often too good to turn down.
"Inmates have nothing but time," the guard continued. "So, to them, it's like fishing. They dangle the bait out there. They'll approach [a guard] and say, 'How would you like to make a quick $1,300- 1,500?' Now, if the officer thinks about it for more than a minute, it's over. You might as well just bring it in because they got you."
He continued, "Ninety percent of officers and supervisors are dirty. It's just a matter of them getting caught. I'm not dirty because I got too much to lose. I like my job, I like my family and I like my freedom. I've turned it down several times. But if I didn't have a family, didn't care, why not? Why not an extra $1,500?"
The guard told 1819 News that many new officers don't stick around for long after witnessing the prison conditions. And many that stick around are continually affected by the daily goings on.
"This is the real deal," he said. "I've seen people getting stabbed, beat up, busted in the head with broomsticks, I've seen it all." I've seen people cut ear-to-ear, I've seen wrists getting slit. I've had inmates die in my arms. That'll mess somebody up."
Mental health services are available for inmates, according to the guard. The officer said that ADOC also offers mental health services for guards, but many choose to seek professional help apart from the state.
Alabama's prisons are chronically understaffed. According to the guard, in his facility, there are many instances in which one guard is responsible for one or two dorms, each holding anywhere between 170-190 inmates. The understaffing makes sufficient policing of contraband and inmate violence virtually impossible.
"You try to get as much contraband as you can. Here lately, I've been getting some of the dope out when I can get it. That's hard because 90% of the time, it's on them. The inmates will either try to swallow it or pass it off."
The guard said the procedure is to report contraband through the proper channels. However, the correct procedures are time-consuming, and the contraband is often circulated back in the prison population.
"As far as contraband, like phones and knives, if I kept every phone or knife I had found, I'd have several boxes full," He said. "But I don't keep it; I throw it out. I break the phone, break the SIM card. I don't let it go back in, but that's just me. As far as the rest of them, that's on them. I've gotten the same phone four times already. I've seen inmates walk up to supervisors and say, 'Hey, let me get my phone back,' and I've seen the supervisor give it right back to them. So what you're saying to me is, I have to bust my ass to get it, and you're just going just to turn it around and give it back to them."
Drug use is rampant in Alabama prisons, and the lack of staff means inmates rarely try to conceal their drug use.
"They don't try to hide shit," he said. "I've caught them shooting up several times. I'll take it to the supervisor, and they don't want to reprimand them for it. So, I go about my way and do it the old-fashioned way: I slap the shit out of them, take their stuff and throw it out."
With the oversaturation of drugs in prisons, overdoses are also a part of the officers' daily activities.
"That's 16 hours a day, that's every day," he said. "If you're lucky, they'll survive. But in the last two months, we've probably had around 30 people die from overdosing."
Unsanitary conditions in Alabama prisons affect inmates and prison staff alike. The dilapidated nature of many Alabama prisons has garnered a fair share of criticism for ADOC in recent years.
"I wouldn't wish prison on my worst enemy because of what I've seen," the office concluded. "It's horrible. The living conditions are bad. On days like this, when it's 104 degrees, we're in that stuff. We've got fans but no AC. Where they sleep, it's rough. It's very unsanitary and very unclean. A lot of us officers get sick. Some of us get sick quicker than others. The inmates are getting sick all the time. I'm sure there's mold in there somewhere. The showers are nasty. You've got roaches everywhere. It's bad."
"It's not really the inmates' fault; it's the outside. Not getting the proper cleaning supplies. Yeah, they got bleach, but it's watered-down bleach. The inmates try to keep it as clean as best as they can with what they got, but there's still roaches all over the place. It's so infested with roaches. It's nasty."
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