Last year 270 people in Alabama’s prisons died, the most of any calendar year on record. The deaths included 19 homicides. Those in prison, their family members and prison advocates have used TikTok to highlight the degrading conditions in Alabama’s prisons, even as the Department of Justice is preparing an unprecedented legal action against the state.
Severe understaffing, overcrowding, violence, drug use and a lack of adequate medical and mental healthcare and basic necessities have fueled a crisis in the state’s prisons for years. But the horrific state of Alabama’s prisons has begun to attract new attention as those affected have posted videos using the #prisontoks and #alabama hashtags to highlight the parlous state of affairs.
At his facility, Jemison said, there are only three correctional officers working at a time supervising about 1,200 prisoners.
“It’s not safe and it’s dangerous for the officers,” said Jemison. “The shortage of staff, no security, overcrowding, this lack of medical care, lack of mental health care … basically turn the mental health crisis into criminal convictions so the majority in here are people with drug addictions and people with mental health issues that shouldn’t be here.”
The state of Alabama closed down most hospitals for the mentally ill in 2013, while prisons and jails saw an influx of prisoners suffering from mental health issues after the cuts and closures.
Alabama has also been criticized for soaring rates of parole denials and harsh sentences that have fueled mass incarceration rates and prison overcrowding in the state.
June Brewer has seen just how bad conditions have become. Her 24-year-old son is currently serving a five-year sentence in Alabama, and was transferred to Fountain correctional facility in Atmore, Alabama, in January, where his mother said he has struggled just to get a bed because people are allowed to hoard and sell them within the prison.
“I bought a bed for him in January when he got to Fountain. In April, an inmate was assigned the bed I had bought so he was kicked out of bed,” Brewer said. Her son had to sleep on the floor. “I called everyone I could think of. No one cared. He didn’t have a bed for two weeks.”
Brewer said she ended up paying $75 to another incarcerated person for him to get a bunk bed, after paying $50 for the first bed.
She also said her son had been too scared to even try to get his depression medication, h had never been offered any classes, and that he had lost a significant amount of weight due to the poor quality of the food.
Jemison said the lack of staffing and safety issues had contributed to worsening conditions for issues such as food, where stealing in the prison kitchen by other prisoners is common, resulting in food shortages and reduced meal portions.
“Summertime, that’s when things get the worst because of the heat and a lot of the time they don’t have any water to drink. They don’t have ice, they don’t have anything,” said Rhonda Averhart, an advocate for prisoners in Alabama, referring to the lack of air conditioning and fans that contributes to a lack of safety and violence within the overcrowded prisons in excessive heat.
“If they started granting paroles and clearing the prisons, things might get a little better. These guys are overcrowded and it’s hard on them,” she added.
The Alabama department of corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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