Alabama Prison Crisis Continues with Fourth Homicide at Donaldson


Mitchell Cosby, 41, was stabbed to death Wednesday at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama.

Mr. Cosby is at least the fourth incarcerated person killed at Donaldson in the past four months. On February 22, Barry Gardner was stabbed to death in a Donaldson dormitory. On February 24, Victor Russo died after suffering blunt force trauma injuries from being struck in the head by a senior officer at the prison. One week later on March 2, William Jennings was beaten to death in a two-man cell at Donaldson.

The Department of Justice began a statewide investigation of the Alabama prison system in October 2016 to determine whether incarcerated people were adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse as well as from abuse by officers and whether they were provided safe and sanitary living conditions.

At that time, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama said, “The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates.”

Overcrowding and lack of sufficient staff to safely operate prisons are among the factors drive violence in Alabama’s prisons, federal investigators found. The lack of sufficient security staff means that housing units holding hundreds of people are left unsupervised for hours at a time, officers do not control movement within prison facilities, and regular searches for drugs, weapons, and other contraband are not conducted. This has fueled an epidemic of drug use, untreated mental illness, and a thriving underground economy in which extortion and debt collection is enforced through violence and sexual assault.

In 2017, a federal court ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to significantly increase its staffing to ensure that critical posts impacting safety in the prisons are not left unfilled. But staffing levels have instead fallen at many prisons, including Donaldson, where security positions went from 69% filled in 2016 to 33% in 2021.

In its initial findings letter in April 2019, the Justice Department concluded that conditions in the state’s prisons are unconstitutional. The letter informed Alabama officials that “an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis.”

They also noted that the frequency of violence had increased dramatically since their investigation began, even with federal prosecutors and experts consistently raising their concerns and suggesting potential solutions to ADOC leadership throughout the investigation. 

At least 73 people have been killed in Alabama’s prisons since the federal investigation began.

In December 2020, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama to enforce the constitutional rights of the state’s incarcerated people. In the 18 months since that lawsuit was filed, at least 20 people have been killed in Alabama’s prisons. The violence remains widespread—homicides were reported in 10 of the state’s 13 prisons for men during this period.