Alabama prisons have been under the eye of federal courts and the U.S. Department of Justice for years.

Problems at Alabama prisons have been noted over the last several years due to facility conditions and staffing issues.

The issues are something the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has been working with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and federal courts to correct. ADOC officials believe a move this week by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama was uncalled for. The DOJ and U.S. Attorney’s Offices alleged conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

“The Constitution guarantees prisoners the right not to be subjected to excessive force and to be housed in reasonably safe conditions,” assistant attorney general Eric Dreiband for the DOJ Civil Rights Division said in a release. “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. The DOJ hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the department’s concerns.”

The public announcement by representatives of the federal government caught Alabama officials off guard as they have been working to improve conditions in Alabama prisons under the eye of the DOJ since 2016.

“We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system,” ADOC said in a statement. “This substantive progress includes targeted efforts to reduce instances of violence within our facilities.”

The DOJ and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices initiated the investigation into Alabama prisons in October 2016 under Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which authorizes the department to take action when it has reasonable cause to believe there is a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to state or local government-run correctional facilities. Alabama officials were slow to act, according to federal officials. In April 2019 the DOJ notified Alabama officials and the ADOC it “fails to protect prisoners from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners and maintain facilities that are sanitary, safe or secure.”

ADOC said it has been working for years on programs related to use-of-force issues.

“The ADOC has been proactive and vocal about its work to address these concerns,” ADOC said. “Most recently in December 2019, ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn announced new actions taken to significantly mitigate the risk of excessive use-of-force incidents in Alabama’s correctional facilities, including the formation of a new violence reduction task force. The work of the task force has resulted in protocol, programmatic, staffing and training assessments as well as actions.”

ADOC said the full benefits of the changes have yet to be realized with the implementation of certain outputs still in early stages. The recommendations of the task force include refresher protocol and procedure training; health and wellness interventions for correctional officers and staff; an emphasis on inmate rehabilitation programs and resources; and the reexamination of enhanced surveillance measures such as facility cameras and the use of body cameras for on-duty correctional officers.

The ADOC said it has completed use-of-force refresher trainings for correctional staff at each of its major facilities and is now in the process of conducting these trainings at its work release and work center facilities. It has also obtained a grant for body-worn cameras by correctional officers that are “always on” to incentivize and ensure behavioral accountability among both inmates and correctional staff. The ADOC said the camera program is in the pilot stage and not yet rolled out to all Alabama prisons.

The ADOC also has been in the process of establishing a new non-security, special investigator position. Use of Force Review Officers, members of ADOC’s Law Enforcement Services Division (LESD), will conduct initial use-of-force reviews at the facility level, as opposed to a correctional staff member who works within the facility at which an event occurred.

ADOC and Alabama officials have been working to solve the issues of the facilities of Alabama state prisons. ADOC officials said the facility plan was accepted by a federal court in February 2018.

“The need to improve prison safety through necessary infrastructure development, as well as increased correctional staffing and additional medical and mental health resources, remains paramount,” the ADOC said.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard Moore said he knows correcting problems will take a long time, but the time has passed for charting out plans of action.

“While we recognized the challenges of correcting systemic constitutional deficiencies in Alabama prisons that have existed for decades, now is the time for significant reform,” Moore said. “The three U.S. Attorneys in Alabama are committed to a just resolution of this matter.”