Overcrowding and Poor Conditions
Jefferson County, AL – According to a story from The Birmingham News, lawyers for inmates John Mason IV and Ishmael Gregory filed a federal lawsuit in Birmingham, Alabama alleging inhumane conditions in the county jails in Jefferson County. The basis for the lawsuit is the standard “Deliberate indifference of government officials”1to protect and provide proper care for inmates, as well as an alleged violation of Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
What is more noteworthy about this case is the conditions that are claimed to exist in these Jefferson County jails. Here is a short list of the conditions alleged in the lawsuit:
- Six to eight inmates are in cells designed for two, and three to four inmates are sleeping on the concrete floor, often without mattresses;
- Only two meals are served a day, “and these meals would shame any standard of decency.”;
- The sheriff has discontinued any jail visitors or clergy, though attorneys are allowed;
- There is no effective segregation of the inmate population as to varying levels of offenses;
- The mental health of inmates is ignored;2
- The physical health of inmates “is at best abysmal.”;
- The sheriff has effectively only allowed the practice of Christianity in the jail – denying inmates access to “virtually all outside reading material except letters and the Christian Bible.”
The Reason for this Overcrowding
The problems in these jails doesn’t seem to be as much a part of rising crime rates as it does falling budgets. Sheriff Mike Hale closed his county jail in Bessemer in 2009 after the Councy Commission cut his budget by $10 million. The lawsuit claims that the Birmingham jail is designed for 600 inmates but currently has 1,700.
Budgets get cut and jails get closed. However, no apparent attempt was made to find suitable inmates for early release to alleviate the obvious problem of overcrowding that would naturally flow from a jail’s closing such as this.
According to Randy Christian, chief deputy of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office “Christian said the jail was built to hold a maximum of 900 inmates but averages 1,200.” Christian is also on record saying that “[a]s of today, we are in a very poor position to defend such a suit. Things at the jail are going to have to be rectified or Jefferson County is going to be in for a long day in court.”
- Alabama’s 11th Circuit Precedent for the deliberate indifference standard is found in Cottrell v. Caldwell, 85 F.3d 1480, 1490 (11th Cir. 1996) [↩]
- This same issue was part of what caused the United States Supreme Court to rule that California’s prison conditions were unconstitutionally overcrowded [↩]