- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Corruption and poor management are to blame for inmate deaths, rampant drug abuse, broken door locks and almost continual violence at St. Clair prison, an inmate lawsuit claims, the latest in a string of complaints over conditions in Alabama’s corrections system.

The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative filed a federal lawsuit Monday on behalf of nine inmates seeking changes at the prison, which holds more than 1,200 men and is severely overcrowded.

The suit, filed in Birmingham, contends conditions at the prison are so bad they amount to cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional. The complaint asks a judge to conduct an unannounced inspection of the prison and order unspecified changes.

Lawsuits or formal complaints filed with the Justice Department are already pending over other Alabama prisons and the system as a whole.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, said the complaints could lead to federal action against the Alabama Department of Corrections.

“A lot of people have raised red flags,” Stevenson said. “There’s a lot to be concerned about.”

Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said safety is a top priority. He said St. Clair is a maximum-security prison holding people convicted of murder and other violent crimes.

“However, the department has undertaken a number of measures to improve safety,” Thomas said in a written statement. “Thanks to funding this fiscal year, (Corrections) was recently able to begin replacing doors, locks and controlling mechanisms at the facility.”

Equal Justice Initiative said it investigated conditions at the prison and presented the findings to Thomas in April.

Two more inmates have been killed at St. Clair since then, and the Department of Corrections has failed to improve conditions, the statement says.

“We believe we’ve been very patient with prison authorities, but they have taken no action to address these urgent problems,” said Stevenson.

The lawsuit said six people have been killed in inmate-on-inmate violence at St. Clair in the last 36 months, and stabbings and assaults are commonplace.

The complaint contends poor leadership and indifference are to blame for drugs and other contraband being sold to prisoners by officers and other workers.

“Because of poor management, drugs, including methamphetamine, methadone, heroin, suboxone, and marijuana, are prevalent at St. Clair and drug abuse and addiction among prisoners is widespread,” the lawsuit says. The complaint contends the drug culture creates instability and worsens security in the prison.

Most cell doors don’t lock, the suit says, leaving prisoners with few ways to protect themselves. Locks that do function can easily be jammed with plastic and other items, according to the suit.

Cutbacks mean prisoners are not getting proper mental health care and have little to do. Warden Carter Davenport has removed reading materials including educational books, novels and religious material from housing areas, leaving prisoners with few things to fill their time.

Davenport and other officers have bullied inmates or used excessive force in attempts to control them, the suit argues. The complaint alleges nine separate instances in which officers beat or mistreated prisoners, some of whom were badly injured, since 2011.

Stevenson disputed officials’ common complaint that funding shortages have led to overcrowded lockups, making life inside state prisons worse.

“(The department’s) failure to manage its prisons safely is not about a lack of money, but a lack of will to act responsibly,” he said. “The situation at St. Clair is getting worse and immediate action is required.”

Thomas said the department has been meeting with Stevenson’s organization and regretted that it decided to file the suit.

St. Clair isn’t the only trouble spot in Alabama’s prisons, which hold more than 25,000 inmates.

Complaints have been filed challenging conditions at Tutwiler prison for women, and a lawsuit challenges health care within the system statewide. The department settled a lawsuit that claimed violence was rampant at Donaldson prison - similar to what’s now alleged at St. Clair - in 2011.

Stevenson’s organization also has filed challenges with the Justice Department over conditions at Elmore prison and abuse allegations statewide.

Earlier this year, inmates refused to work at St. Clair and three other prisons in a protest of living conditions.

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