Alabama Prison Guards Side with Inmates In Lawsuit

7th May, 2009
Jay Reeves

BESSEMER, Ala. — Inmates and officers agree on this much about Alabama's toughest prison, where old plastic jugs catch drips from death row's leaky roof: It's barely fit to live in or work in.
A group of prisoners suing the state claims Donaldson Correctional Facility is unconstitutionally crowded and dangerous, which the Department of Corrections denies. And in an odd alliance that is rare in prison litigation, corrections officers are siding with the cons instead of backing their bosses.


A professional organization of prison guards has spoken publicly and filed legal documents supporting the federal lawsuit by prisoners who complained about what they depict as brutal conditions at Donaldson, which is carved into the rolling timberland about 20 miles west of Birmingham.


Corrections Capt. Lloyd Wallace, president of the 500-member Alabama Correctional Organization, gave a sworn statement saying Alabama's prisons "are understaffed, overcrowded and are very dangerous." Before the lawsuit, he made headlines by labeling the state's packed prisons a "ticking time bomb."


Guards say department officials are already pressuring them to keep quiet about prison conditions in a state that ranked at the bottom in percentage of overall budget spent on corrections, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Center on the States.


"They're taking a step like a judge and putting in a gag order," said Jarrod Massey, a Montgomery lobbyist who serves as a spokesman for the organization.


It's unusual to have prisoners and guards on the same side in such a case against a state corrections agency, said Ed Bales, managing director of Federal Prison Consultants of Wilmington, Del., which advocates for prisoner rehabilitation and rights.


Alabama's prison commissioner, Richard Allen, takes issue with the guards' claim that Alabama prisons are a "time bomb" and denies trying to silence the group.


In fact, he agrees Donaldson — where the most trusted inmates live in open dorms packed with 130 bunks in long rows, supervised by only a handful of officers — and other Alabama prisons are stretched to the limit, with more than 25,000 inmates living in space designed to hold 13,403.
All sides agree more money could solve many problems by allowing for the expansion of prisons, additional programs and more hiring to supplement a recent increase in new officers. The budget is so tight that the prison system has sold thousands of acres of land to raise $17.4 million for new dormitories, roof repairs, new trucks, guns and other needs.


"There are no doubts that our facilities are crowded, there's no doubt that we are short on correctional officers," Allen said. "But I don't think it rises to a constitutional violation. For (that), you have to have almost willful disregard for the conditions."


Belying its turbulent history, Donaldson seemed calm and mostly quiet during a recent tour with the warden. Prisoners sat on benches watching TV in the common area of two-story cellblocks; others lounged on metal bunks during a head count.


The prison opened in 1982 as West Jefferson Correctional Facility but was renamed following the murder of correctional officer William Donaldson by an inmate using a handmade knife in 1990.


To cope with an influx of new prisoners amid years of get-tough laws, officials began adding beds at Donaldson, which initially was meant to hold about 700 prisoners. Officials even stacked a third bunk in two-person cells measuring only 8 feet by 12 feet, increasing tensions in the state's most secure lockup.


"This is a level where they send prisoners who are management problems, behavior problems, people who can't function at lower levels," Warden Gary Hetzel said of the prison. "All the problems are sent here."


The Southern Center for Human Rights sued in February, asking a court to make Alabama reduce the population at Donaldson. The lawsuit listed a dozen attacks on inmates such as stabbings and beatings — some by fellow inmates, some by guards — dating back three years. A recent visit by attorneys for the Atlanta-based center turned up more reports of violence.
The Alabama Correctional Organization has held a news conference in Montgomery to highlight problems in Alabama's prisons and ask for a pay hike, and Wallace's sworn statement was filed in the prisoners' lawsuit.


Massey, a spokesman for the group, said Wallace has since been called to a lengthy meeting with prison executives in Montgomery and pressured into signing a second statement, this one saying he hasn't visited Donaldson in more than one year and had only talked with other officers who work there.


The prison system also sent a memo to employees reminding them of regulations against speaking publicly about the department's operations. Massey said the message was clear to employees: Shut up.


Allen said he doesn't object to the group speaking out, within limits.


"Their organization can call a press conference anytime they want to and say whatever they want to as long as they are talking as the organization. But they can't talk in their official capacity as employees of the department," he said.