Alabama Prisons

In this Oct. 22, 2019, file photo, a sign that reads, "HELP," is posted in the window of an inmate cell during a tour along with state officials at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, against Alabama over conditions in the state prisons, saying the state is failing to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama is asking a judge to dismiss a Justice Department lawsuit over state prison conditions, arguing the incidents of violence cited in the case do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

In a Monday court filing, an attorney for Alabama argued the federal lawsuit makes sweeping generalizations about the use of excessive force by officers as well as inmate-on-inmate violence. The state also argued that another ongoing court case is already addressing staffing concerns raised in the lawsuit.

"Plaintiff's isolated examples of inmate-on-inmate violence fail to suggest an egregious or flagrant constitutional violation," a lawyer for the state wrote in the court filing.

In seeking to dismiss the case, Alabama argued that the existence of inmate-on-inmate violence does not automatically represent a constitutional violation. The court filing cited incidents where an inmate was killed in a dorm and another where an inmate was seriously burned after having microwaved baby oil and coffee grounds poured on his face and body.

"While these certainly constitute serious allegations, Plaintiff does not specifically allege that anyone associated with the state acted or failed to act in a manner that caused these alleged attacks," a lawyer for the state wrote.

The state also argued that excessive force claims require a showing that officials applied force maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Alabama in December, claiming the state is failing to protect male prisoners from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff. The assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Eric Dreiband, said in a statement that Alabama's prisons "are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence."

The lawsuit came after two federal reports detailing incidents in state lockups. A July report, in an apparent reference to the death of inmate Steven Davis, said that officers "continued to strike the prisoner after he dropped any weapons and posed no threat." In another, federal investigators alleged a prison guard beat a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, "I am the reaper of death, now say my name!"

The Justice Department lawsuit also raised concerns about chronically understaffed prisons. The state responded that a federal judge in an ongoing lawsuit over mental health care has already ordered the state to increase staff.

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