- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday announced an investigation into the treatment of adolescent inmates at the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, including if they were targets for physical and sexual assaults while being housed with adult inmates or kept in isolation for extended periods.

The Department of Justice said investigators will assess whether juveniles are detained at the jail in conditions that pose a serious risk of harm to their physical and psychological well-being. Federal authorities said they received complaints alleging that juveniles were regularly housed with adult inmates where they were physically abused and propositioned for sex and that juveniles were improperly kept in solitary confinement or lockdown, sometimes for months at a time.

“Isolation_particularly the prolonged and restrictive lockdown alleged in Jefferson County_can lead to paranoia, anxiety, depression and suicide, and exacerbate pre-existing psychological harms,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.

Jefferson County Chief Deputy Sheriff Randy Christian disputed the accusations.

“The only juvenile inmates we house have committed crimes so violent or heinous that the laws of the state of Alabama require they be charged as adults. If they would rob, rape or murder you, I would likely assume they would also lie to try and make it out of adult jail. It isn’t a place for the faint of heart but it is a place they are treated fairly. We certainly have no heartburn over proving that in court should we need to.” Inmates must be at least 16 to be placed in the county jail, Christian said.

The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center in May of 2014 sent a letter urging DOJ to investigate conditions for juvenile detainees at the jail and praised the decision to open an investigation.

“They were placed in situations where they were accused of crimes, have not been found guilty, but are housed in situations where they are constantly in fear of their physical safety as well as their sanity,” said Ebony Howard, SPLC senior staff attorney. “When they were offered support by the jail, it was in the form of being placed by themselves in a cell,” Howard said.

The SPLC letter requesting an investigation said a 17 year-old had his throat cut by adult inmates at the jail.

It also the second time in recent months that an Alabama correctional facility has come under federal scrutiny.

The Department of Justice last week announced a settlement agreement with the state over conditions at Alabama’s only prison for women. Federal investigators last year accused the state of subjecting inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to an environment of sexual abuse and harassment.

State and federal officials agreed to changes to the prison and filed a settlement agreement in federal court.

“Our commitment to finding solutions to problems in Alabama’s troubled jails and prisons is ongoing,” U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance for the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement. Vance said, “the best solution is always a collaborative approach that encourages the state and counties to correct conditions that are constitutionally inadequate.” However, she said they will file legal action if necessary.

The Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division is conducting the investigation.

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