Prison advocates believe that millions of dollars could be spent on prison programs and protective services for inmates and correctional officers at one of Alabama’s most violent prisons, rather than spending it on defending lawsuits that are avoidable.
Despite the Alabama legislature authorizing only $500,000 to defend a lawsuit alleging that poor leadership, mismanagement and corruption have allowed dangerous conditions at St. Clair Correctional Facility to flourish - placing the lives and safety of prisoners and officers at imminent risk of harm - legal expenses have increased to more than $1.5 million and continue to rise in costly litigation that could have been avoided.
According to a December 15 investigative report produced by WBRC-Fox 6, a TV news station in Birmingham, Alabama, the state Department of Corrections used taxpayer funds between March 2015 and November 2016 to pay for a Birmingham law firm to represent the agency in the case. The state Department of Corrections has also affirmed that there is “no limit to duration or cost” associated with the ongoing litigation.
“We asked the state to just meet with us, let our experts in, see what their recommendations are and if we agree that these things would make the prisons better, let's just do it, rather than spend millions of dollars in litigation,” EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said in an interview with WBRC-Fox 6. “We did not get a positive response from the Department of Corrections to that request, which we've made multiple times.”
Lawyers from EJI met with prison officials over the course of several years detailing blatant problems including the near-complete absence of functioning locks, uncontrolled movement of prisoners throughout the facility, the prevalence and ready availability of knives and other dangerous weapons, and daily incidence of violence including stabbings and sexual assaults. But as violence at St. Clair prison escalated without an adequate response from state officials, EJI was forced to present these issues in court by filing a lawsuit to seek federal court protection, all the while continuing to seek an alternative resolution with DOC officials to avoid additional legal expenses.
"We've offered to resolve these issues without litigation for years and whatever you're spending on attorneys fees is money that you didn't have to spend if you're prepared to recognize these issues," Stevenson said. “These dollars, I would rather see go into programming, better services for the incarcerated, better pay for correctional officers, and better support for the people who are providing services to this population."
While state officials have yet to respond adequately, the case is now in mediation, so there is hope that these issues will be resolved without having to resort to needless litigation that will require the further expenditure of millions of dollars from Alabama’s General Fund in legal fees paid to private firm attorneys. In the meantime, St. Clair prison inmates and correctional staff remain at high risk of violence and abuse, as taxpayer funds continue to be dedicated to fulfilling legal expenses rather than improving basic security and programming.