Alabama inmates subject to 'distressing' excessive force by prison staff, DOJ alleges

Federal officials have "cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama's prisons for men."
Sandy Ray holds photos of her son, Steven Davis, during a press conference at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery on Dec. 4, 2019. Davis died in 2019 after an altercation with corrections officers at the prison where he was incarcerated.
Sandy Ray holds photos of her son, Steven Davis, during a press conference at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery on Dec. 4, 2019. Davis died in 2019 after an altercation with corrections officers at the prison where he was incarcerated.Kim Chandler / AP file

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By Erik Ortiz

Two months after her son died, Sandy Ray stood before an Alabama state task force on criminal justice policies and held up two pictures of him: one as they had known him, and the other, intubated, with his eyes swollen shut, the sockets resembling two dark pools after he was beaten and bruised beyond recognition in prison.

"This is my son," Ray said in December, showing the before-and-after photos of Steven Davis, 35.

"I had to have a closed casket because of what they had done to him," she said, according to The Associated Press. "No one, not even a dog, deserves this."

The Alabama Department of Corrections said Davis' death in October came at the hands of two correctional officers at the Donaldson Correctional Facility outside Birmingham, where he had been serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a 2006 murder.

To this day, Ray knows little more than what was publicly released: Her son, brandishing prison-made weapons in each hand, "attempted to strike an officer," according to prison officials. When he refused to comply with their orders, the staff members "applied physical measures to [defuse] the threat." After the altercation was over, Davis was taken to the hospital and died the next day.

Despite attempts to learn from officials what transpired and the push for a full criminal investigation into the correctional officers' actions, "they act like it didn't happen," Ray told NBC News on Friday.

Her lingering concerns, however, were acknowledged in a 28-page Department of Justice report released Thursday that investigated broad allegations of excessive force across men's prisons in Alabama. The review is notable for being yet the latest to sound an alarm over what inmate advocates and legal groups have long described as unconstitutional conditions within the state prison system.

"These uses of excessive force — which include the use of batons, chemical spray, and physical altercations such as kicking — often result in serious injuries and, sometimes, death," the Justice Department report found. "Indeed, in the last months of 2019, at least two prisoners at two different ADOC facilities died following uses of force."

While the report doesn't directly name Davis as being one of the two deaths, it casts greater light on what happened to him. In his case, the Justice Department noted, "numerous prisoner-witnesses ... reported that correctional officers continued to strike the prisoner after he dropped any weapons and posed no threat."

Ray said she's "glad that the findings have been made public, and while it's a little too late for my son, it can be a warning for others."

The Justice Department investigation was opened in October 2016 to examine conditions at the state's 13 prisons for men, which house about 16,000 inmates, and a litany of complaints of physical and sexual harm and excessive force by correctional officers. As a result, an initial federal report in April 2019 found that the prisons are violating the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse, and by keeping them in overcrowded facilities.

Those findings prompted Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, to set up a study group on criminal justice policy, the work of which was supposed to be the cornerstone of this year's legislative session. Proposals to potentially reduce prisoner recidivism, reconsider long sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and increase the oversight of prisons were all under consideration, according to state Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican who chairs the State Senate Judiciary Committee. The coronavirus pandemic derailed the effort's momentum.

The Southern Poverty Law Center found that in May, when the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles reconvened after canceling hearings because of the pandemic, it granted parole for only 15 people out of 160 cases reviewed that month. All but four of those prisoners are white.

The Justice Department's latest report focused on allegations of excessive force and concluded that prisoners' constitutional rights to be protected from "cruel and unusual punishment" were being violated.

Among the cases cited include incidents like one in December 2018, in which a correctional officer beat a handcuffed prisoner while yelling out, "I am the reaper of death, now say my name!" according to witnesses. In another, in February 2019, a sergeant beat two handcuffed prisoners and then filed a false report; and in September 2019, a lieutenant slammed a prisoner on a concrete floor and knocked him unconscious.

"Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama's prisons for men," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

Louis Franklin, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, called the allegations "distressing," and said the agency is "hopeful that our continued work with State officials can ensure that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations."

In a statement following the Justice Department's report, Ivey said she remains "committed as ever to improving prison safety through necessary infrastructure investment, increased correctional staffing, comprehensive mental-health care services, and effective rehabilitation programs, among other items."

Alabama, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States, is tackling criminal justice reform under the stress of prison overcrowding. The Justice Department said the state's prisons are cumulatively housing 6,000 prisoners above their designed capacity.

But both the Alabama Department of Corrections and state Attorney General Steve Marshall were taken aback by the report. "We were ambushed," Marshall said in a statement.

He said that while the Department of Corrections is facing challenges, the state is responding with the construction of three new men's prison facilities to help ease the burden. Alabama, he added, "will not be bullied into a perpetual consent decree to govern our prison system, nor will we be pressured to reach such an agreement with federal bureaucrats."

State corrections officials said Friday that the department is addressing the excessive force allegations through a newly formed violence reduction task force, refresher trainings for correctional staff, the implementation of so-called use-of-force review officers, and a pilot program for correctional officers to use body cameras, similar to police departments.

Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy at the American Civil Liberties Union's Justice Division, said Alabama and other states, like Mississippi andSouth Carolina, with similar problems of prisoner overcrowding, violence and lack of funding are floundering under a "lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality."

She added that the Justice Department report only confirms that the problem is systemic. Meaningful reforms can't wait, she said, particularly with the deadly and rapid spread of the coronavirus in prisons.

"When someone dies, our government shouldn't require a human sacrifice before it takes action," Roseberry added.

Ray said she understands that some people may not see prison reform as being essential while states, including Alabama, grapple with the ongoing public health crisis, but she believes the criminal justice system can engulf any family when they least expect it.

"Don't ever say, 'It won't be me,'" she said. "Because the first person screaming and hollering, saying, 'That person deserved to die anyway,' well, it might be your child, your grandchild or your brother next."