Inside America’s Black Box: A Rare Look at the Violence of Incarceration

Would we fix our prisons if we could see what happens inside them?

Prisoners at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama made knives out of fan blades and other materials.

March 30th 2019 By Shaila Dewan and published here

The contraband is scary enough: Homemade knives with grips whittled to fit particular hands. Homemade machetes. And homemade armor, with books and magazines for padding.

Then there is the blood: In puddles. In toilets. Scrawled on the wall in desperate messages. Bloody scalps, bloody footprints, blood streaming down a cheek like tears.

And the dead: a man kneeling like a supplicant, hands bound behind his back with white fabric strips and black laces. Another, hanging from a twisted sheet in the dark, virtually naked, illuminated by a flashlight beam.

These were ugly scenes from inside an American prison, apparently taken as official documentation of violence and rule violations.

Prisons are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside. Prisoner communication is sharply curtailed — it is monitored, censored and costly. Visitation rules are strict. Office inspections are often announced in advance.

So when prisoners go on hunger strikes or work strikes, or engage in deadly riots, the public rarely understands exactly why. How could they? Many people harbor a vague belief that whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve. It is a view perpetuated by a lack of detail.

But some weeks ago, The New York Times received more than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. Some show inmates as they are being treated in a cramped, cluttered examination room. Others are clinical: frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds.

[The Department of Justice found a “flagrant disregard” for Alabama prisoners’ right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.]

It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum. Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield? Those pictured betrayed little emotion and certainly none of the bravado broadcast by their tattoos: South Side Hot Boy, Something Serious, $elfmade.

After considering the inmates’ privacy, audience sensibilities and our inability to provide more context for the specific incidents depicted, The Times determined that few of these photos could be published. But they could be described.

St. Clair is known to be a deeply troubled institution in a state with an overcrowded, understaffed, antiquated prison system. Alabama has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and, as measured by the most recent counts of homicides available, its deadliest prisons, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery. Suicide is epidemic as well — there have been 15 in the past 15 months

For years there have been complaints that St. Clair inmates are heavily armed — some for self-protection — and allowed to move freely about the compound. In fact, St. Clair is more deadly now than it was in 2014, when the Equal Justice Initiative brought suit against it for failing to protect prisoners. There have been four stabbing deathsthere in seven months.

Last June, the group said the prison was failing to comply with a settlement agreement.

Prison officials dispute that, saying the Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to improving safety and security. The department has requested money to raise salaries and increase the number of officers. Multiple law enforcement agencies recently teamed up to conduct a contraband search at St. Clair that recovered 167 makeshift weapons, said Bob Horton, a department spokesman. 

But as of October, the prison was still severely short staffed, with more vacancies than actual officers. 

A second lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery, says the prisons have failed to provide adequate mental health care. (The photos show a message painted on the wall in blood, with letters about the height of a cinder block. “I ask everyone for help,” it read in part. “Mental Health won’t help.”)

An inmate held in solitary testified that his monthly mental health sessions lasted only five to 10 minutes.
He cut himself with razor blades and used his blood to write a plea for help.

The photos were given to The Times by the S.P.L.C., which said it had received them on a thumb drive. 

Bob Horton, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the department could not authenticate the photos. 

But Maria Morris, a staff lawyer at the S.P.L.C., said the environment shown looked like St. Clair, and some photos had identifying information that corresponded to known inmates or showed men that the S.P.L.C. recognized as its clients (S.P.L.C. removed the identifying information before giving the images to The Times).

The man who painted the blood on the wall, referred to in the lawsuit as M.P., had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly tried to kill himself. He testified that he had been held in solitary confinement for six years, allowed to exercise one hour a day in ankle shackles.

Ms. Morris has specialized in prisoner’s rights litigation for more than a decade. She hears accounts of rape, beating or stabbing on a daily basis. I asked what it was like for her to see the photographs. 

They made it impossible, she explained, to retreat into that small, self-protective corner of her mind — the place where it was possible to imagine that her clients’ stories might not be as bad as they sounded. 

“Seeing what had been done to those people’s bodies — it just stripped away all of the numbing,” she said. “It was very painful to see that all of the suffering that I’ve been hearing about and trying to relate to the court — how deep it goes.”

The thumb drive included a document titled “READ ME FIRST” and claiming to be from a corrections officer. It said the photos represented only a “small portion of the injuries from inmate-on-inmate violence in the past three years.”

The writer said that the current legal agreements governing the prison stood no chance of working: “The day-to-day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse. I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.”Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.

Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.

The photos show dozens of wounded men. One had been stabbed at least 10 times. Another had a hole in his lip you could stick a pencil through. A pair of handcuffed wrists displayed 15 precise slashes. There was a recurring palette of pale red and sickly, Mercurochrome yellow. One man’s back had a shiv at least an inch wide still buried in it, right between the shoulder blades.

There were three individuals pictured in a folder called “Dead men” and seven in a folder called “Murders,” all of whom could be identified through news reports, press releases and booking photographs. 

But most disturbing were the images that seemed to echo the most painful aspects of African-American history. 

Many convincing arguments have been made that our penal system was at least partly designed to extend control of black people and their labor, particularly in the South, where after slavery ended black men were conscripted into chain gangs for offenses like vagrancy and “selling cotton after sunset.”

Amid the St. Clair pictures were 19 taken of a black man who was completely naked but for a pair of handcuffs, photographed from the front, back, left and right. In one frame two white officers, standing guard inches away from him, avert their eyes.

Another image brought to mind the photos of the monstrously disfigured face of Emmett Till, the teenage victim of a 1955 lynching in Mississippi, which galvanized the civil rights movement when they were published by Jet magazine.

Though separated by more than half a century and by a wide gulf in circumstances, the St. Clair photos showed another mutilated, African-American face, this time belonging to Emory Cook, a 54-year-old prisoner killed in a cell three years ago. Under Alabama’s harsh version of a three-strikes law, Mr. Cook had been serving a life sentence for third-degree burglary. 

As a prisoner, he was entitled to be protected from harm. He looked like he had been hit with a plank. 

Correction: April 1, 2019 An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization. It is in Montgomery, Ala., not Birmingham.

Shaila Dewan is a national reporter and editor covering criminal justice issues including prosecution, policing and incarceration. @shailadewan

Alabama’s Gruesome Prisons: Report Finds Rape and Murder at All Hours

April 3rd 2019 and published here By Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan
The segregation unit at Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility houses inmates in solitary confinement. Many have come to see the unit as a haven from the prison’s general population.CreditCreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times

One prisoner had been dead for so long that when he was discovered lying face down, his face was flattened. Another was tied up and tortured for two days while no one noticed. Bloody inmates screamed for help from cells whose doors did not lock.

Those were some of the gruesome details in a 56-page report on the Alabama prison system that was issued by the Justice Department on Wednesday. The report, one of the first major civil rights investigations by the department to be released under President Trump, uncovered shocking conditions in the state’s massively overcrowded and understaffed facilities.

Prisoners in the Alabama system endured some of the highest rates of homicide and rape in the country, the Justice Department found, and officials showed a “flagrant disregard” for their right to be free from excessive and cruel punishment. The investigation began in the waning days of the Obama administration and continued for more than two years after Mr. Trump took office.

The department notified the prison system that it could sue in 49 days “if State officials have not satisfactorily addressed our concerns.”

[The New York Times received more than 2,000 photos taken inside an Alabama prison. This is what they showed.]

Alabama is not alone in having troubled, violent prisons. But the state has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and its correctional system is notoriously antiquated, dangerous and short-staffed. The major prisons are at 182 percent of their capacity, the report found, contraband is rampant and prisoners sleep in dorms they are not assigned to in order to escape violence.

“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report said, noting that some facilities had fewer than 20 percent of their allotted positions filled. It also cited the use of solitary confinement as a protective measure for vulnerable inmates, and “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.”

State officials said the report addressed issues that Alabama was already aware of and working to fix.

“For more than two years, the D.O.J. pursued an investigation of issues that have been the subject of ongoing litigation and the target of significant reforms by the state,” a statement from the office of Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with D.O.J. to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

But the report called the state “deliberately indifferent” to the risks prisoners face, and said, “It has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence.” Legislative efforts to reduce overcrowding through measures such as reducing sentences were not made retroactive and have had “minimal effect,” the report said.

Alabama’s prisons have for years been the subject of civil rights litigation by the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center, nonprofit legal advocacy groups based in Montgomery. Maria Morris, the lead lawyer for the center’s lawsuit, also disputed the assertion that the problems were being fixed.

“They’re not fixing them,” Ms. Morris said. “They’re giving a lot of lip service to the need to fix them, but the lip service always comes back to we just need a billion dollars to build new prisons and, as the Department of Justice found, that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Alabama inmates continue to die in high numbers. There have been 15 suicides in the past 15 months, and the homicide rate vastly exceeds the national average for prisons.

The Justice Department report focused on the failure to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence because of what it said was inadequate training, failure to properly classify and supervise inmates, and failure to stem the flow of contraband including weapons and drugs, among other problems.

The department is still investigating excessive force and sexual abuse by prison staff members, an investigation that former federal prosecutors say could lead to criminal indictments.

[Our reporter went inside St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala. He found it was “virtually ungoverned” and the inmates were armed.]

Investigators visited four prisons and interviewed more than 270 prisoners. To “provide a window into a broken system,” the report detailed a single week’s worth of injuries and attacks, including days that saw multiple incidents including stabbings, a sleeping man attacked with socks filled with metal locks and another man being forced to perform oral sex on two men at knife point.

The department also concluded that the system does not provide “safe and sanitary” living conditions. Open sewage ran by the pathway that government lawyers used to access one facility, which the state closed soon after the visit. One investigator grew ill from the toxic fumes of cleaning fluids while inspecting the kitchen, the report said.

The report said the state failed to track violent deaths or adequately investigate sex abuse. At least three homicide victims — including one who was stabbed and another who was beaten — were classified as having died from natural causes, the report said. The report listed nine killings in which the victims had been previously attacked or officials had received other warnings that they were in danger.

Sexual assaults occur in “dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms, and showers at all hours of the day and night,” the report said. Prisons must screen inmates and separate sexually abusive prisoners from those at risk of sexual abuse, particularly gay and transgender people; the report said Alabama does not do so.

Inmates are raped to pay off debts, and one mother told the Justice Department that a prisoner had texted her to say he would “chop her son into pieces and rape him if she did not send him $800,” the report said.

Last month, Governor Ivey warned of “horrendous conditions” in the prisons and an impending federal intervention in her State of the State speech.

Ms. Ivey said the department had increased the prison budget in recent years, given raises to corrections officers and requested $31 million to hire 500 more correctional officers and increase pay in the coming fiscal year.

But Mac McArthur, the executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, which includes state corrections workers, said attrition was still outpacing recruitment, in part because starting salaries were still below $30,000 a year for some officers, and in part because the job was so dangerous.

The federal investigation was opened during the Obama administration, after the lawsuits over prison abuses and published accounts of endemic brutality, violence and torture. The investigation continued under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had also served as a longtime senator from Alabama.

The report included a series of measures necessary to remedy the constitutional and other violations that regularly occur in the Alabama prison system, including additional screening for those entering the prisons, moving low-risk inmates, hiring 500 additional corrections officers and overhauling disciplinary processes around violence and sexual assault.

Similar federal civil rights investigations have resulted in consent decrees — court-approved deals that include a road map of changes that institutions such as police departments and state correction departments must adhere to in order to avoid being sued.

But in a break with past practice, Mr. Sessions placed three key restrictions on consent decrees. He said that a top political appointee must sign off on any deal. Department lawyers must show proof of violations that go beyond unconstitutional behavior. And the deals must have a sunset date, meaning they can expire before violations have been remedied. The current attorney general, William P. Barr, has not changed Mr. Sessions’s policy.

Mr. Sessions said that the consent decrees interfered with states’ rights, a position echoed by Ms. Ivey in her statement insisting on an “Alabama solution.”

But Vanita Gupta, a head of the civil rights division in the Obama administration and one of the officials who opened the investigation, said that given the pervasive problems and the history of inaction, “nothing short of a comprehensive consent decree will adequately address these constitutional violations.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it would seek a consent decree.

Ms. Ivey is hardly the first governor to reckon with the prison system and its decrepit conditions. Her immediate predecessor, Robert Bentley, pushed a plan for $800 million in bonds to build four new prisons and to close some existing facilities.

But governors have only so much influence in Alabama, and the Legislature balked, especially as a scandal left Mr. Bentley weakened. This year, Ms. Ivey proposed a similar plan for new prisons that state officials hoped would be ready by 2022.

Alan Blinder contributed reporting.

Follow Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan on Twitter: @ktbenner and @shailadewan.

A mothers cry for help

Kharon Davis has been held in the Houston County Jail for 9 years with no trial and no bond. The conditions within the jail are archaic, hateful, psychologically damaging and unconstitutional. Kharon is held in 23 hour lockdown for 4 years, in a constantly cold cell that is unhygienic, denied access to the law library, exercise yard and even the main inmate population.

Kharon Davis Initiative Flyer
Kharon Davis Initiative Flyer

Why has Kharon been denied his constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial? Please come and show your support for Kharon and the other inmates, many of whom have not even been to court yet, let alone been convicted of a crime, and to demand that Jail Commander Keith Reed drastically improve the conditions inline with the Department of Justices, National Institute Of Corrections, jails standards.

Inmate restrained in a chair and beaten unconscious, they broke his fingers too…

James Bailey in Houston County Jail
James Bailey in Houston County Jail

Jon B. Carroll from The Henry Report has obtained and released details of a horrific case of purposeful persecution and prosecution of a totally innocent man. James Bailey, in addition to being set up on drug charges, underwent a horrific and sustained beating, to the point of unconsciousness, he was taken to hospital and the following day, back at the jail, the beating continued including being handcuffed with his hands behind his back for 8-12 hours in a restraint chair, beaten with a metal pipe, maced, beaten around his head, punched and kicked all over his body, which resulted in brain and permanent nerve damage. They broke his fingers too, he also required stitches for some of his many injuries.  

 

C.J. Hatfield (age 22)
C.J. Hatfield (age 22)

Bailey was drugged at one point while he was in jail, given twice the allowable dosage and in the drug induced state (Prozac and Vistaril) gave what is interpreted by the Sheriff’s Dept as a confession to the murder of C.J. Hatfield. A murder, that he didn’t commit as he was in a different state at the time, which the Police, investigators and DA’s Office knew, but seemingly chose to prosecute him for it anyway. Click here to read the full story

When Carroll asked one of the former defence lawyers why was this not revealed, he said that Judge, Larry Anderson, would not do several things, he kept Bailey in chains and shackles in front of the jurors, we were given no money to hire a private investigator to simply verify the multiple alibis, nothing. We were scared, they wanted this guy guilty and we have to live here. The jury convicted Bailey after 15 minutes of deliberation, the exculpatory evidence was never shared. Bailey was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

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I have volunteered at the Houston County Animal Control & those animals are treated better than the humans in that jail.

  • 13 things wrong with how the Houston County Jail is run and how they treat citizens held inside there.
    13 things wrong with how the Houston County Jail is run and how they treat citizens held inside there.

    Have to wipe & show officer to prove you are on monthly, will only give you 1, 12ct bag of pads & no underwear, will sometimes take hours to bring you pads after you prove you are on monthly.

  • If you are indigent you will get 1 roll of toilet paper to last you approx 3 weeks until you are eligible for the 3 rolls every 2 weeks.
  • Toilets will only flush 2x every hour. Officers can press button to flush at other times but will not, so in communal (1 toilet) in dayroom you have approx 40+ women using toilet you can imagine the faeces, urine & blood that accumulates.
  • Do not receive sheet to put on mattress & mattresses are not disinfected between uses.
  • Will not give you proper cleaning supplies to clean cells. I was there for a 2 week period & we were on 23 hour lock down. Fed in our cells & we were not given cleaning supplies once.
  • Once when we told the Health Department, during an inspection about the conditions, we were put on our beds for 3 days.
  • There are Rats that come in the cells.

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A Desperate Prayer For Houston County Jail By A.W

To All Who Read This :

May God bless and keep you and yours, I write to ask for your prayers.

In Houston County, Alabama there is such blatant evil. Everything that i have ever read about Nazi Germany, goes on at Houston County Jail, and Houston County itself is a den of evil that rivals mobsters. I myself went through Houston County Jail in 2015.

The experience broke me down physically, mentally and even spiritually. I had to ask myself why God would allow such abuse to take place. Through the time out of there i’ve gotten stronger and i now have a richer relationship with God. I now realize that he allows things in our life to make us stronger and dependent on him alone, so that he can show his power and glory in our lives.

I’m not beaten, through God and the wonderful person he blessed me with as my husband, who is a mountain of love, encouragement and integrity, i am motivated to write. I do question why the situation in Houston County, the corruption, the racism, the abuse of power and the conditions in Houston County Jail have been left to degenerate into that state that its now revealed to be in. I have to question, why isn’t someone in office who CAN do something about it, doing something about it?

Or is it like it was in Nazi Germany, where people just say “Oh how dreadful” and then turn a blind eye?

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Innocent Man, Falsely Accused, Convicted And Slung In Houston County Jail

The release of authentic police documents, by Jon Carroll, whistleblower of the Henry County Report and previously confirmed by former Police Chief John White, indicated that law enforcement officers planting drugs and weapons on black males and the District Attorney then prosecuting these fraudulent charges, as well as the District Attorney covering up crimes committed by law enforcement officers. As a result, several other victims of the same types of crimes alleged in those documents have come forward to join the community’s stand against these injustices committed by law enforcement, lawyers, and judicial officers of the court.

balance-1172786

The following statement is from a Gentleman that came forward to tell his story, the wrongs done, the legal misrepresentation, the punishment meted out, the brutal and inhumane conditions suffered whilst held in the Houston County Jail. We aim to build a comprehensive picture in the readers mind in order to give you a better insight as to what really happens once your within the Houston County judicial system.

Our hope is that what has transpired here in Dothan will help to bridge the divide, maybe people will now realise and accept that racism in all of its guises should never be allowed to succeed. Lets remind ourselves and especially those in public office that discrimination for reason of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or religion in unacceptable, they know that its wrong and its thinly disguised as something other than what it really is.

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Leaked Documents Reveal Dothan Police Department Planted Drugs on Young Black Men For Years, District Attorney Doug Valeska Complicit

Jon B. Carroll

Carlton Ott,  Clark Rice,  Steve Hamm, Steve Parrish, David Jay, Michael Magrino, Dewayne Herring, Andy Hughes, Gary Coleman, and Scott Smith

PICTURED IN THE IMAGE ABOVE, CARLTON OTT,  CLARK RICE,  STEVE HAMM, STEVE PARRISH, DAVID JAY, MICHAEL MAGRINO, DEWAYNE HERRING, ANDY HUGHES, GARY COLEMAN, AND SCOTT SMITH

HUNDREDS OF CASES PROSECUTED WITH PLANTED EVIDENCE, MANY WRONGLY CONVICTED STILL IN PRISON

The Alabama Justice Project has obtained documents that reveal a Dothan Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation was covered up by the district attorney. A group of up to a dozen police officers on a specialized narcotics team were found to have planted drugs and weapons on young black men for years. They were supervised at the time by Lt. Steve Parrish, current Dothan Police Chief, and Sgt. Andy Hughes, current Director of Homeland Security for the State of Alabama. All of the officers reportedly were members of a Neoconfederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels “racial extremists.” The group has advocated for blacks to return to Africa, published that the civil rights movement is really a Jewish conspiracy, and that blacks have lower IQ’s. Both Parrish and Hughes held leadership positions in the group and are pictured above holding a confederate battle flag at one of the club’s secret meetings.

The documents shared reveal that the internal affairs investigation was covered up to protect the aforementioned officers’ law enforcement careers and keep them from being criminally prosecuted.

Several long term Dothan law enforcement officers, all part of an original group that initiated the investigation, believe the public has a right to know that the Dothan Police Department, and District Attorney Doug Valeska, targeted young black men by planting drugs and weapons on them over a decade. Most of the young men were prosecuted, many sentenced to prison, and some are still in prison. Many of the officers involved were subsequently promoted and are in leadership positions in law enforcement. They hope the mood of the country is one that demands action and that the US Department of Justice will intervene.

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LEE v. HOUSTON COUNTY

LEE v. HOUSTON COUNTY

This case highlights the usefulness that an external and unbiased agency would have in being responsible for over-seeing the grievance procedure within Houston County Jail, ensuring that inmates rights, and their health and safety are not violated whilst promoting fairness and maintaining transparency of prescribed processes in accordance with the National Institute of Corrections standards.