New Images From an Alabama Prison Reveal Horrific Conditions and Abuse

A trove of photographs depicting brutalized and murdered prisoners in Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility has thrust the treatment of our nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated people into public view. The first horror is what these people have endured in prison. The second horror is that while shocking, it is not a surprise. 

As a lawyer who has represented prisoners for more than two decades, I have come to expect such violence and degradation of human beings held in appalling conditions like those seen in these photos. The only thing that’s unusual is that, for a brief moment at least, the curtain has been pulled aside and the everyday brutality of our prisons laid bare for all to see.

Transparency is like daylight — applied directly, it can be a disinfectant. And to protect the health and lives of incarcerated people across our country we need full transparency of how they are treated. 

That is not the case currently. Prisons are closed institutions, literally walled off from public view. To some extent, this is unavoidable and understandable. While journalists and members of the public can freely wander into the Department of Motor Vehicles, in prisons safety and security considerations preclude similarly unfettered access. Those same considerations require some monitoring and control of communications between prisoners and the outside world. 

But to a large extent, the hidden nature of U.S. prisons represents a deliberate policy choice — one that is unique among the democracies we think of as our peer nations. 

Many countries have an independent national agency that monitors prison conditions and enforces minimal standards of health, safety, and humane treatment. In Great Britain, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons has the power to conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons; a similar agency operates in Canada. In countries that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), prison monitoring by a national oversight body is supplemented by periodic visits by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. 

By contrast, the United States has no independent national agency that monitors prison conditions. The U.S. also has not ratified OPCAT or any other treaty that would provide for outside monitoring. The bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons concluded that “[f]ew [U.S.] states have monitoring systems that operate outside state and local departments of corrections, and the few systems that do exist are generally underresourced and lacking in real power.” 

Perhaps for this reason, the main vehicle for oversight of conditions in U.S. prisons has been the federal courts. Litigation can permeate prison walls and allow us into the housing units and the solitary confinement cells where prisoners live and die. It allows us to review videos and records otherwise shielded from public view. It allows us to compel prison officials to testify publicly and under oath. 

But the federal courts' oversight role has been sharply limited by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA subjects lawsuits brought by prisoners in the federal courts to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other litigants. Consequently, there has been a significant decline in judicial oversight of prison conditions. Between 1995 and 2000 alone, the number of states with fewer than 10 percent of their prison populations under court supervision more than doubled, from 12 to 28. 

The lack of public knowledge about our prisons has real costs. Most obviously, a lack of oversight facilitates neglect and mistreatment of prisoners and prevents accountability when such misconduct occurs. But there are other consequences as well. Prisons represent the ultimate in big, coercive government — in many states, they represent one of the largest line items in the state budget. They are empowered to confine thousands of people against their will for years or decades and, in some circumstances, to use lethal force against them.

Given these high stakes and the potential for abuse, prisons should be subject to the most exacting scrutiny and public oversight. The reality, though, is just the opposite. Prisons are among the least transparent and accountable government agencies.

Many states ban in-person interviews with prisoners, and prison officials have barred specific journalists whose reporting they considered too critical. Some states have amended their freedom of information laws to limit their application to prisons, even barring prisoners from submitting requests. The federal prison system enacted a rule banning prisoners from publishing their writings under a byline; the rule was later invalidated by a federal court. Arizona went so far as to pass a law making it a crime for prisoners to post information on the internet; that statute, too, was overturned as a violation of the First Amendment. 

As long as the public is kept in the dark, horrors like those at the St. Clair Correctional Facility will continue unseen. Increased transparency and oversight are just first steps in correcting the dreadful conditions in our prisons, but make no mistake — the need for them is as immediate as it is urgent.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

One way or another prisons are always a problem, especially if you are in one.

Joy ( Card carr...

Looked for photos...Not here. America the Beautiful...?

Daud

I love the work the ACLU does, but as a retired NJDOC Corrections LT. there are 2 common misconception that I find consistant in articles exposing the sometimes horrific conditions that can be found in U.S. prisons. The first is that there for the most part a world of difference in private prisons and state run facilities. Private for profit prisons are generally understaffed, officers are grossly underpaid and receive little training, have very few benefits, and the driving motivation to maximize profits leads to poor food, poor living conditions, and poor healthcare. Worse yet, the fact that officers are many times barely paid above minimum wage and recieving little training leads to a great deal of physical abuse of inmates by guards who have little incentive to do the right thing.
The second variable that is never discussed when delving into the problem of prison abuse in America are regional differences. There are huge regional differences in the legal and social approaches taken in Texas and Alabama as opposed to say New York and New Jersey. And adding to those regional differences and approaches to inmate confinement are that in at least NY, NJ, and California, Corrections Officers are law enforcement Officers. With that status of being law enforcement comes the pay, benefits, and most importantly for inmates staff training. In most states, especially Southern States, the Officers not only don't have such status, the entire approach to inmate incarceration is stuck in the 19th century. Angola Prison is a prime example of this. And the work being done for judicial and prison reform by the Southern Poverty Law Center in these regions of the South bear witness to this.
Finally, across the country there has been a huge outcry denouncing the use of solitary confinement by prisons. However, when not used for punishment and abuse, solitary confinement is a critical part of being able to maintain safety and security in a prison. Why? Because in almost every state some 40 years ago, Republican legislators begin to close down psychiatric hospitals as a cost saving measure. And where did those people who were mostly poor with psychiatric disorders end up? Prison. Some estimates saying that those inmates classified to one degree or another as Special Needs make up anywhere from 50% to 75% of most prison populations. And when those who are the most severe cases become a very real threat not only to others but to themselves, solitary confinement is often the only solution until the inmate becomes more stable.
I hope in the future you may consider these things.

Clare

Excellent comment! Spot. On.

Anonymous

Solitary confinement is incredibly cruel and damaging to people with psychiatric disorders. It's highly disingenuous to justify it by saying it's just until the inmate stabilizes, because such confinement greatly exacerbates the illness. There are regional disparities and NJ may limit the practice to short periods but that is emphatically not true generally. Read about Alabama, look at the recent images, in particular those of mentally ill inmates in that state who are kept in solitary for very extended periods. These are concentration camp conditions. Daud implies that this practice is justified because it is used only for short periods, as though that were true generally. He or she dismisses the efforts to fight this practice with this outrageously misleading implication.

Anonymous

Wow. What a great explanation! Thank you for your knowledge.

Alexandra

Excellent comment. You explain a lot of the issues, but that only further supports the ACLU's efforts. Why can't we take the best examples, build a model for success, and set a standard that is monitored? I think that's a reasonable request and one of the ACLU's goals here.

Anonymous

What is the ACLU, or anyone, doing to change this and to implement some type of oversight of prisons?

Anonymous

Its odd that in an article that is all about photos and the need for transparency no photos or transparency would be offered. If these photos display the things you claim, why not let us see for ourselves? If you are advocating transparency, why give us the opportunity to see what you claim exists?

Anonymous

The images are in the link within the webpage above. They don't own the pics, and thus can only link to them.

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