UNIONTOWN, Ala. – At her home in this tiny town in west Alabama, Sandy Ray settled into a plush recliner, sandwiched between two photos of her son: one printed on her black T-shirt, the other framed on the wall behind her.
A third photo, the one she took with her phone inside a Birmingham hospital room in the final days of her son’s life, is put away. That one still haunts her.
Ray spoke calmly as she described the October phone call from prison officials asking her to come to the hospital. How she scrambled to grab her extra oxygen tanks and tubing before making the 100-mile drive to see her son.
But her voice shook as she described what she saw there: a man so severely beaten, his head was misshapen. A man who looked nothing like the son she knew, who barely looked human.
“It looked like a monster,” Ray said.
Sandy Ray on her son’s beating in prison
Sandy Ray discusses the death of her son Steven Davis. Davis was beaten by correctional officers in Donaldson Correctional Faculty and died from his injuries. (This video contains disturbing images.)
Steven Davis, 35, had been beaten to death by guards at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, where he was a prisoner. Officials said Davis rushed toward two officers with a weapon in each hand, so the guards “applied physical measures” to subdue him.
Davis’ family and other prisoners dispute that account. An investigation is ongoing, and prosecutors will present the case to a grand jury.
It’s an “ugly plateful of mess,” Ray said of Alabama’s troubled prison system, where death is a way of life.
In 2019, more inmates were killed by other inmates in Alabama’s prisons than in any year in the prior decade.
The enduring violence raises questions not only about Alabama’s ability to oversee its 13 men’s prisons but also about the federal government’s willingness to hold the state accountable.
Last April, the Justice Department released a scathing report documenting one harrowing death after another in Alabama men’s prisons. It described a broken system where stabbings and sexual assaults were common. Correctional officers, tasked to control the chaos, fueled it by smuggling in knives. A flourishing drug trade led to overdoses, while staffers and prisoners raked in profits.
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The 62-page report read like a call to action. But nearly a year later – and five months after Davis was killed – the horrors persist.
One reason, according to prisoner and civil rights advocates, is that the Justice Department has abandoned one of its most effective tools to force state governments to operate their criminal justice systems in a way that protects civil rights.
For years, the Justice Department has used consent decrees to reform prisons, jails and police departments that violated people’s civil rights. Those agreements with state and local governments enabled judges to ensure that promised changes were underway.
Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has curtailed the use of consent decrees, leaving civil rights advocates to worry that widespread abuse is left unchecked. Without binding legal agreements that mandate specific changes, reforming a broken system falls to the willingness of those in power to act.
Last year, Alabama lawmakers said the Justice Department is letting the state fix its own problem.
In her State of the State address last month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the state needs to “reinvent” its corrections system so it can rehabilitate people rather than warehouse them. She repeated a mantra of the past few years: “This is an Alabama problem that must have an Alabama solution.”
Sandy Ray discusses the death of son Steven Davis, whose photo hangs on the wall in her Uniontown, Ala., home. Davis was beaten by correctional officers in Donaldson Correctional Faculty and died of his injuries.Mickey Welsh / Advertiser
But in a state where decades of harsh sentencing laws have incarcerated more people than almost any other, where years of overcrowding, understaffing and underfunding have exacerbated prison conditions, advocates call for more urgency and federal oversight.
Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for prison reform, said years of litigation have proven the state “is not willing and able to house all the people it wants to lock up in safe, constitutional conditions.”
“The problems have been decades in the making,” Crowder said, “and the state has had decades to fix it, and they have not.”
Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said unless the federal government “is looking over their shoulder,” state officials will “let these prisons deteriorate.”
“Having identified that they’re in crisis, or they’re in violation of the Constitution, the (Justice Department) is obligated to make it better,” Ring said.
The Justice Department did not comment. Jay Town, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, declined to be interviewed. State and federal officials have said they’re negotiating how to address the civil rights violations identified by the Justice Department.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jefferson Dunn, who has declined to comment on the negotiations, said prison officials need more “time and resources.”
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‘You might as well be on the street’
In the year since the Justice Department released its report, Ivey appointed a panel to recommend how to solve the prison crisis. Criminal justice and prison reform are expected to be major issues in the 2020 legislative session. State officials began plans to build three men’s prisons.
But behind the razor wire and cell doors, the violence continued.
The prison system had an average of 153 assaults a month in 2019, up from 23 a decade earlier.
The number of inmates in the state’s prisons has dropped in the past decade. But facilities built to house 12,400 prisoners are bursting with about 21,000 as of December, up by about 800 from a year earlier.
Inside, drugs and illegal weapons are still easy to come by, according to several inmates.
“I probably could go out now, randomly pick somebody and they probably got a knife,” said a Donaldson Correctional Facility inmate who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
He said he sells drugs he buys from a corrections officer. For 2 ounces of marijuana or methamphetamine, he pays the officer $2,000.
Whatever drugs inmates want, “it’s there to be found,” said an inmate at Staton Correctional Facility who asked not to be named. “You might as well be on the street.”
The combination of drug addiction and desperation – many of the prisoners never will be released – is dangerous, said Ira Morris, a Staton Correctional Facility inmate. He said he almost died in 2018 after he was stabbed a dozen times by a prisoner who tried to steal his belongings.
A prisoner may stab another for drugs, for drug money, or for a cell phone, inmates said.
“It’s out of control,” said a Bullock Correctional Facility inmate who asked not to be identified. “The system is failing. … Chaos, confusion and corruption.”
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“If there’s no viable, productive, learning process … then you’re being built back up by the environment you’re in.”
Nate Chute, USA Today Network
Ray, Davis’ mother, still doesn’t know what happened to her son.
“I just couldn’t believe they would beat him,” she said. “They could have done anything else instead of beating and beating and beating him until he was dead.”
She keeps a small notebook in the side table next to a chair at home. She flipped through the pages, reading dates and times under her breath. Each one is a record of when she called the Department of Corrections leadership, the prison warden or the district attorney investigating her son’s death. Notes show when she left voicemails and when mailboxes were full.
No one has ever responded, she said.
The Department of Corrections does not publicly track incidents involving use of force by prison guards. The Justice Department’s report did not address it, although officials said that part of the investigation is still ongoing.
Dunn, the corrections commissioner, created a task force to examine alleged excessive use of force by prison staff after Davis and another inmate were killed over two months last year.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Ray, who learned from a reporter that her son had been beaten by officers, not other prisoners. “I don’t even think I’m awake yet.”
Consent decrees drop
Prisoner advocates say the Justice Department must act.
“When the report came out, we saw nothing, we heard nothing. We still don’t know anything,” said LaTonya Tate, executive director and founder of Alabama Justice Initiative. “I think DOJ has an obligation to the people of Alabama.”
But the feds are unlikely to step in.
One of Jeff Sessions’ last acts as attorney general was to limit federal oversight in the form of consent decrees. In a memo signed before President Donald Trump fired him in November 2018, Sessions directed the Justice Department to “exercise special caution” before resorting to consent decrees, saying they can be a burden on state and local budgets and can deprive elected officials of control.
The Justice Department still investigates possible civil rights violations in places that house and incarcerate people, such as prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. The department has opened at least seven investigations under the Trump administration, according to press releases, news stories and annual reports to Congress.
In February, the Justice Department opened an investigation into conditions in Mississippi prisons amid a statewide crisis that resulted in deaths and riots in several facilities.
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But opening investigations doesn’t mean civil rights violations are being addressed, experts say.
The Justice Department has not reached a consent decree to resolve civil rights allegations in facilities that house and incarcerate people since October 2016, according to annual reports. Nor has it reached any out-of-court settlements, which don’t have the deadlines, judicial oversight and monitoring that come with consent decrees.
In the eight years prior, the department averaged six consent decrees and settlements a year, according to annual reports.
Even if the Justice Department were to reach a consent decree, Sessions’ memo allows them to be effective for only two years.
“There’s no way, even if a consent decree is entered, that you’re going to fix the problems that are as deep and as wide and as challenging as the Alabama prison system” that quickly, said Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department lawyer who investigated civil rights violations in prisons and jails during the Obama administration. He is now executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Corrections experts said consent decrees are an effective way to force state lawmakers to provide more funding.
An inmate sits on his bed at Draper Correction Facility in Elmore County, Alabama. Opened in 1939, it was the oldest correction facility in the state until it was closed in 2018.Albert Cesare / Advertiser
“States have limited dollars. Legislators don’t like to raise taxes. Governors don’t like to raise taxes. … To be honest, prisons don’t have a lot of lobbyists out there urging for more funding for them,” said Chuck Simmons, a former acting corrections secretary in Kansas.
“Sometimes, if there’s no pressure from the courts … then prisons get pushed down the priority ladder for more appealing things like schools.”
For large-scale investigations like the one in Alabama, consent decrees are the “best form of remedy” because they carry weight and influence funding, said Julia Abbate. “Even though for states, it is painful.”
Abbate was deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section in the Bush and Obama administrations and the first year of Trump’s. She now works at Just Detention International, a group that pushes for government action to address sexual abuse behind bars.
When situations involve “egregious constitutional violations, that’s exactly when the federal government needs to step in and do its duty,” she said.
Abbate said the fact that federal and Alabama officials are negotiating is a good sign. The status of those negotiations is unclear.
‘We need action from somewhere’
Among the key problems the Justice Department identified in Alabama’s prison system are gross understaffing and insufficient video cameras to monitor prisoners. The department said prison officials should hire 500 correctional officers and install cameras throughout all prisons within six months.
In February, well past that deadline, Hark Ephriam was stabbed 11 times in an attack at Bullock Correctional Facility, said Karen Webster, his fiancee. She said there were no officers or cameras around.
If there had been officers, they could have broken up the fight before the stabbing, Webster said. Ephriam survived.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said in an emailed statement that the investigation into the stabbing is ongoing, so it couldn’t provide details. The agency said it couldn’t provide information on staffing and cameras because of current litigation and security concerns.
But data released as part of an unrelated federal lawsuit revealed that the Bullock facility had 99 guards and 237 vacancies in June. At the time, the prison was 164% over capacity.
The Alabama Legislature approved pay raises and funding to hire 500 correctional officers. To make it easier to fill vacancies, the Department of Corrections created a new class of officers, who receive less training and have fewer responsibilities than other correctional officers. Prison officials said a truncated training academy is more in line with standards around the country, but advocates are concerned the department is filling slots with under qualified employees.
While new officers have been hired, many others have quit. According to data revealed in a federal court hearing in December, the Department of Corrections lost 11% of its supervisory staff over four months last summer.
In January, the panel Ivey appointed came up with several recommendations, including beefed-up funding, legislative oversight of the Department of Corrections, sentencing reforms to reduce prison population, and mental health and education programs. But the panel acknowledged the recommendations are just the beginning.
“The challenges we have inherited are multifaceted and complex. They are longstanding. And they will require spending significant sums of taxpayer money,” the group’s chair, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons Jr., said in a letter to Ivey.
Crowder and other prisoner advocates see the state’s plans to build three prisons as a cosmetic, expensive move that will strengthen the state’s culture of incarceration. The Department of Corrections has estimated the three prisons will cost $900 million.
“Alabama is a poor state,” Crowder said. “There’s now questions about how the state would even pay for these prisons. Nobody is talking about how to pay for the culture shift and the rehabilitation and the education and the mental health care that would happen in those prisons.”
She said the state is not moving fast enough. “We need urgency and we need action from somewhere,” she said.
Ray is not optimistic. “I don’t think they’re going to do anything that they don’t want to do,” she said.
In December, still looking for answers about what happened to her son, Ray went to the Alabama State House, her oxygen tank in tow. She addressed legislators discussing criminal justice policy.
She showed them that photo of her son, the one that still haunts her.
“He is beaten beyond recognition. I had to have a closed casket because of what they had done to him,” Ray told lawmakers. “No one, not even a dog, deserves this.”