According to a Birmingham News analysis of figures from the state Department of Corrections:
Assaults and fights in fiscal 2011 were not most prevalent at St. Clair Correctional Facility, which has been the scene of two homicides since October and was recently the subject of a tour highlighting the dangers of prison crowding.
Nor did the worst numbers come from Donaldson, a close-security prison in Jefferson County that was named for a slain guard and was sued in 2009 because of undue levels of violence.
Instead, for the second year in a row, the facility with the highest rate of inmate-on-inmate violence — that is, the number of assaults and fights compared to the number of prisoners — was the medium-security Bullock Mental Health Facility. In 2011, 24 fights and assaults were reported at the small unit, which is supposed to treat mentally ill inmates so they can return to general population. That translated to almost 14 incidents per 100 prisoners, triple the rate of the overall prison system.
[Related story: Alabama prison violence rising in overcrowded system]
The second-worst rate was reported at Draper, another medium-security facility in Elmore County that houses many young, first-time prisoners.
And when counting only the most serious assaults — that is, those causing significant injuries and requiring medical attention — Draper’s rate was the highest in the prison system. Overall, serious assaults occurred in the prison system at a rate of 0.37 inmates in 2011. Draper’s rate of serious assaults was 2 per 100 inmates, or five times higher.
The comparisons are based on the Department of Corrections’ online monthly reports, which tally inmate-on-inmate assaults and fights but do not include sexual attacks. The 2011 results weren’t an exception, according to the News analysis.
In 2010, the five prisons with the worst rates of inmate-on-inmate violence were medium-security facilities, according to Department of Corrections data. The medium-security Bibb Correctional Facility, where an inmate was killed May 24, had the fourth-highest rate in 2011 and the third-highest in 2010. In both 2010 and 2011, four of the five facilities with the worst rates for assaults causing serious injuries were medium-security prisons.
Advocates who work with Alabama inmates say they don’t doubt violence is common throughout the prison system. But they are skeptical about the accuracy of the state’s records.
Regardless of what the state’s figures show, assaults and clashes are rampant in higher-security prisons, such as Donaldson, St. Clair and Holman, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery.
“All of them have unacceptably high levels of violence,” he said.
Prison officials, too, tend to point to Donaldson and St. Clair when they talk about the dangers created by facilities with too many inmates, too little space and too few officers. Top department officials showcased St. Clair in a media tour just this past March; running commentary during the tour focused on officers’ tenuous control of a volatile, dangerous prison.
Nancy Wolff, a Rutgers University professor and economist who has conducted research on prison conditions, said the expectation is that more-secure facilities house higher-risk inmates and should have higher rates of violence. But the numbers can vary considerably from one prison to the next, depending on everything from the extent to which the staff protects inmates to the layout of a facility, she said.
Officials say open dorms, for instance, could play a role in the higher rates of violence in their lower-security prisons.
“One could probably say in a dorm situation .¤.¤., simply because of the mass of people you have in the area, there probably is some greater tendency for things to happen,” said Morris Thigpen, a former Alabama prison commissioner and now director of the National Institute of Corrections.
Dorms filled with bunks and people also can be more difficult for officers to monitor and control, said Grantt Culliver, institutional coordinator of the state prison system.
In addition, Alabama’s problems with crowding and staffing also are more pronounced in medium-security prisons. As a group, these institutions are more overcapacity than higher-security prisons, and they are almost always more short-staffed than facilities such as Donaldson and St. Clair. Some medium-security facilities consistently operate with half or less of their authorized contingent of correctional officers.
The kind of inmates in a facility also matters, prison officials say.
The perception is that inmates serving life-without-parole sentences — who are housed almost exclusively in prisons such as Donaldson and St. Clair — have nothing to lose by breaking rules. But officials say many of these prisoners ultimately try to make peace with their surroundings, sometimes becoming a stabilizing force among other inmates.
“Older inmates, most of them are not wanting to act out,” Thigpen said. “They want to do their time. They want to be safe.”
Meanwhile, research has shown that inmates who are mentally ill or who are young are at higher risk of being assaulted, and that could help explain the scope of violence at Bullock’s mental health unit and Draper.
Alabama prison officials say inmates at Bullock Mental Health Facility tend to be combative because of their illnesses. “Some of those guys just can’t live together,” Culliver said.
And Draper, built in 1939 and Alabama’s oldest prison, has dormitory-style cellblocks teeming with young inmates. “We’ve got what I would consider children there,” said Culliver. “You’ve got a lot of social adjustment. You’ve got guys who have not done time before, and they’re trying to make their own mark.”
But lawyers who represent inmates say the prison system ultimately has the responsibility to curb the risk of violence, and it too often has failed to do so. They say the top leadership at the facility sets the tone.
Stevenson believes that helps explain violence at Draper. He said Draper’s top staff has threatened inmates even in the presence of Equal Justice Initiative workers, and the prison generates a constant stream of complaints.
“We’ve had all kinds of problems with Draper,” Stevenson said.
As for Bullock, violence is an indication that sick inmates are not getting the right kind of treatment in the right kind of environment, lawyers say.
“You don’t blame the inmate. You see that as a manifestation of a problem,” said Gayle Gear, a Birmingham lawyer whose 2001 suit on behalf of mentally ill inmates led to the creation of Bullock and other mental health units in the prison system. “I’m very disappointed to see we have lost ground.”
James Tucker, a lawyer with the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, said violence should not be considered acceptable in a therapeutic facility, and it is not inevitable. He pointed to past reviews that found almost no assaults occurred at Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility, a prison-like institution in Tuscaloosa that is operated by the state mental health agency and populated by people who have been charged with crimes.
Former Taylor Hardin director Jim Reddoch said the facility’s front-line workers were diligent and well-trained in using non-punitive methods to defuse quarrels.
“It’s not like they never occurred. It’s that the situations were brought under control quickly,” said Reddoch, now executive director of the Indian Rivers Mental Health Center. “We train them to intervene before there’s ever a lick passed.”