The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 10, 2013

Report claims sexual abuse at three state prisons

Associated Press

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A Montgomery-based legal organization claims corrections workers are physically and sexually abusing inmates at three Alabama men's prisons, accusations similar to allegations that focused attention on the state's women's prison last year.

The Equal Justice Initiative said Wednesday an investigation had uncovered dozens of cases of corrections officers abusing men at the Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore; Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent and Donaldson prison near Bessemer.

The allegations were reported first by WSFA-TV and the Montgomery Advertiser.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the nonprofit legal firm, told The Associated Press the problems appear worst at Elmore, which was designed for 600 prisoners but held 1,180 men as of the beginning of April.

Abuse also is occurring at Bibb and Donaldson, he said, and it could be happening elsewhere in the system.

The allegations are similar to cases previously reported by Equal Justice Initiative at the state's lone prison for women, Tutwiler prison at Wetumpka.

"If we keep acting as if these are isolated incidents that only occur rarely we are not going to create the type of structure that is needed to address the problem," Stevenson said.

Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas said the department was reviewing all complaints contained in a report by Equal Justice Initiative.

Thomas said he was already aware of one incident before the legal organization brought it to his attention, and had asked the state attorney general's office to investigate. The incident involved the use of force by an officer against an inmate that resulted in physical injury.

"Everybody in my agency knows this sort of behavior is not going to be tolerated," Thomas said. "We are going to continue to vigorously investigate matters when they come to our attention. We're going to investigate these things and they're going to be prosecuted."

The chairman of the legislative prison oversight committee, state Sen. Cam Ward, called the allegations "inexcusable."

"This is a black eye on our corrections system and on our state," said Ward, R-Alabaster.

Stevenson said the investigation started after his group received dozens of complaints in a short period of time from inmates at Elmore earlier this year. Staffers spent three months at the facility interviewing inmates and prison workers, he said.

In the past six months, there have been nearly a dozen reports of prisoners at Elmore having been handcuffed, stripped naked and then beaten by several guards. Some of the inmates have required hospitalization and suffered permanent injuries, according to the EJI report.

At Donaldson and Bibb, there have been reports of male correctional officers that forced young male inmates to perform sex acts, including oral sex, and then threatened to file disciplinary charges against them if they refused or reported the abuse, the report said.

An earlier report by the Equal Justice Initiative cited sexual abuse of female inmates by male guards at Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. Thomas brought in the National Institute of Corrections, part of the Justice Department, to conduct a review at Tutwiler. Its report, released in January, cited the lack of security cameras monitoring major areas of the prison.

In response, Thomas got the Legislature to appropriate $3.5 million for security improvements at Tutwiler, including cameras to monitor conduct inside the walls.

Four former employees of Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton are scheduled for sentencing Sept. 23 on charges related to the beating death of inmate Rocrast Mack. The most serious of the four, former prison supervisor Michael Smith, faces up to life in prison for hitting and stomping Mack and then trying to cover up how he died.