People incarcerated in Alabama endure horrific conditions in solitary confinement, the Montgomery Advertiser reported today, and the neglect and mistreatment they suffer too often ends in tragedy.
That was the case for Antonio Bell, a 29-year-old man who died in 2020 after spending 18 months in solitary confinement in an Alabama prison, according to the Advertiser. An autopsy showed he’d previously had a stroke and his heart was enlarged, but his father told the Advertiser he received no medical care.
Jason Kirkland, 27, died in July 2021 in a segregation unit at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama. Last year, two Alabama correctional officers were arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide for failing to render aid to Mr. Kirkland, a mentally ill man who unnecessarily suffocated and died while they were on duty.
Solitary confinement cells are filthy, EJI’s Charlotte Morrison told the Advertiser. People in solitary are denied access to showers or laundry, and often are not allowed to have any bedding. In some cases, solitary cells have no air conditioning, leading to heat-related illnesses.
In 2020, Tommy Rutledge died in a solitary confinement cell where the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. His core body temperature was recorded at 109 degrees prior to his death. Mr. Rutledge, who struggled with serious mental illness, spent most of his incarceration in solitary confinement. He was found sitting near the window of his cell with his head facing the window, trying to get cooler air, the Advertiser reported.
“The conditions in the men’s prisons across the board in Alabama, solitary confinement and otherwise, are just so horrific,” Ms. Morrison said.
The U.S. is the only advanced nation that uses prolonged isolation as a routine tool of prison management. United Nations standards on the treatment of prisoners prohibit solitary confinement for more than 15 days, declaring it “cruel, inhuman or degrading.”
In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy decried “[t]he human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation,” including madness and suicide, anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, and self-mutilation.
People held in solitary confinement are subjected to an increased risk for self-harm and suicide, exacerbated mental illness, and higher rates of death after release.
In June, EJI received multiple reports that Steven Seay, 34, died by suicide while in a solitary confinement cell at St. Clair Correctional Facility. Mr. Seay was on mental health watch, but shortly before his death he was moved from a crisis cell—where he should not have been able to harm himself—to solitary confinement.
Yesterday marked two weeks in solitary confinement for Bernard Jemison, whose friend Janette Jones told the Advertiser that prison officials have used solitary confinement to punish Mr. Jemison for using a cellphone to record and share abusive conditions inside the prison. “Instead of fixing the problem, they would rather punish the person for exposing them,” Ms. Jones said.
Indeed, the conditions in Alabama’s prisons are so dangerous that people often request to be placed in solitary confinement for protection, Ms. Morrison told the Advertiser.
“That people would want to go to solitary confinement for protection really speaks to just how horrific and life-threatening conditions are,” she said.
In 2022, 274 people died in Alabama’s prisons—the most on record in a calendar year for Alabama, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. At least 19 of these deaths were homicides.
Ms. Morrison told the Advertiser that, while the lack of prison staff is a problem nationwide, prisons are particularly understaffed in Alabama. A federal investigation into the state’s prisons found “a strong pattern of evidence of deficient supervision” based on records of “hundreds of grave injuries to prisoners that were inflicted out of the sight of ADOC correctional officers.”
But ADOC leadership nonetheless has failed to give employees direction on how to manage its growing population, Ms. Morrison told the Advertiser. “Because the prisons are in such a state of crisis they haven’t had the leadership to direct more effective use of the staff and supervisors that they have or the effective use of the resources they’ve been given by the legislature,” she said.
And the situation is just getting worse. Through a combination of mismanagement and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons, “they become deadly,” Ms. Morrison said.
EJI reported in June that, according to ADOC data, nearly one in three deaths in Alabama’s prisons last year were due to homicide, suicide, or fatal drug overdose. That’s seven times higher than the most recently reported rate for the state as a whole.
The Justice Department notified Alabama officials in April 2019 that the state prison system’s failure to protect incarcerated people from rampant violence and sexual abuse violates the Eighth Amendment.
But Alabama state officials still have not announced any plans to reduce deaths in custody.
Instead, as Ms. Morrison put it, people in Alabama’s prisons continue to suffer through “a nightmare most people can’t comprehend.”