- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama’s severely overcrowded prison system is going to have to change, say state officials. The unknown is whether the state will make the changes voluntarily or the federal government will force the state like it did in the 1970s.

Gov. Robert Bentley said the state is moving to overhaul its prisons in the face of accusations about abuse, corruption and substandard health care.

“We are going to look at leadership within the prisons. We are going to see what needs to be done and we are going to make some changes,” Bentley said.

However, reform advocates said it’s too little, too late in a state where federal courts had to step in 30 years ago to fix prison overcrowding.

“These prisons are the worst in the nation,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. “They are the most overcrowded prisons in the country. There are severe problems that are not being addressed.”

Alabama politicians say they are working to correct issues with state prisons, acknowledging the risk of federal intervention if the state does not take action.

The Alabama prison system was placed in federal receivership in the 1970’s following lawsuits overcrowding and lack of adequate medical care. A federal judge in 1981 ordered Alabama to free several hundred inmates to relieve severe overcrowding.

The Equal Justice Initiative has asked the Department of Justice to again investigate what it called the “illegal and unconstitutional condition of confinement” in Alabama prisons.

The advocacy group issued a report last week that said a six-month investigation revealed corruption, abuses and contraband-dealing by prison staff and dangerous conditions that were worse than the group originally feared.

The prison system has an underground economy based on trading contraband, such as drugs and cell phone s, that is “policed by physical violence,” according the report.

The group also alleged that young male inmates have been subject to sexual abuse by prison staff. Young inmates at Donaldson and Bibb correctional facilities were stripped naked and forced to perform sex acts and threatened with disciplinary charges if they refused or reported the incident, the group alleged.

The Department of Corrections issued a statement saying that it was reviewing the EJI report but noted some of the concerns date back to 2010 and most have been previously reported.

“We recognize there are issues facing the prison system, and we have been working diligently to create a better, healthier and safer environment for inmates and staff in our prisons,” the department statement read.

Alabama has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country prisons, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Alabama prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates the facilities were originally designed to house.

The request for a federal investigation is the latest development for a prison system that has been in the spotlight for the last year.

The Department of Justice in January sent Bentley a letter saying that conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, the state’s only prison for women, were unconstitutional because the state had failed to protect inmates from sexual abuse and harassment.

In June, 43 inmates filed a lawsuit saying the state was failing to provide medical and mental health care, leading to deaths, inadequate treatment for cancer and suicide attempts.

“It is astonishingly bad. We’ve spoken with so many people who have had terrible conditions go unrecognized and untreated,” said Maria Morris, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who is representing inmates in the case. A trial in the case is at least a year away, Morris said.

The prison system has defended the level of medical care and said it has responded to other concerns, such as installing cameras and inmates privacy features at Tutwiler

Bentley earlier this year announced the launch of a study that will recommend ways to improve the prison system and relieve overcrowding without risking public safety. Recommendations are expected for the 2015 legislative session.

Sen. Cam Ward, the chairman of a state prison task force, said the prison system needs better internal auditing procedure regarding inmate complaints and better inmate-to-staff ratios.

“This is a bad situation we’re in. That’s why I say all the time, take this seriously or else someone else is going to take it seriously for us,” Ward said

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