On August 28, 2015, eleven men imprisoned in the Alabama Department of Correction's St. Clair Correctional Facility brought this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. Represented by The Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a non-profit public interest group, they argued that the Alabama Department of Correction’s practices and policies resulted in a prison environment that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. They cited 42 U.S.C. §1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 2201 as their causes of action, and they sought class action certification to represent all of the prisoners at St. Clair Correctional Facility. The plaintiffs asked the court both for a declaration that the prison’s policies are unconstitutional, and an injunction requiring the prison to change its policies and practices.
In arguing that the Alabama Department of Correction’s actions at St. Clair’s amount constitute cruel and unusual punishment, plaintiffs argued that the Alabama Department of Corrections has allowed a pervasive culture of violence to develop in the prison. Partly, this stems from chronic overcrowding, under-staffing, and design flaws at the prison. Plaintiffs claimed that there are many blind spots in the prison where prison officials are unable to monitor prisoners’ activities, allowing prisoners to carry out assaults with impunity. They also claimed that prison employees fail to perform proper maintenance on the locks of individual cells, allowing prisoners to leave their own cells and enter other cells to commit assaults.
Additionally, plaintiffs argued that prison officials don’t provide inmates with adequate therapeutic, educational, rehabilitative, and vocational services, and that this failure has further contributed to the violence. This is especially true with regard to the prison’s treatment of prisoners with drug addictions and mental illness. Plaintiffs argued that prison officials put those prisoners into punitive segregation rather than providing treatment. This serves to exacerbate their conditions, resulting in even more violence when they are placed back into the general prison population.
Plaintiffs claimed that the prison consistently fails to properly respond to sexual assaults. They alleged that prisoners known to be at risk of committing sexual assaults, and prisoners known to be at risk of being sexually assaulted, are often housed together. Plaintiffs also claim that prison officials often fail to provide counseling to victims, fail to properly investigate crimes, and either fail to protect victims from retaliation or place those victims in isolation.
Plaintiffs further claimed that prison employees directly contribute to prison violence. They cited a number of incidents in which prison officials have used violence against inmates, often resulting in serious injuries requiring medical care. They also alleged that prison employees, in addition to failing to prevent inmates from smuggling in drugs, often sell drugs and other contraband themselves, exacerbating drug addiction problems and resulting in further violence.
The case is still in early stages of litigation. On February 17, 2015, the judge assigned to the case, District Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins, denied most of defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims; though she did grant their request to terminate one of the named plaintiffs because that plaintiff had been transferred to a different correctional facility. Defendants sought review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, by filing for a (discretionary) writ of mandamus, but on June 16, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit denied that petition without explanation. As of June 28, 2016, Judge Hopkins has not yet decided whether to grant the plaintiffs class certification, nor has she decided the case on the merits.Ryan Berry - 06/28/2016