STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Alabama is being forced to address its dangerous and deadly prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice put the state on notice to fix unconstitutional conditions or face a federal lawsuit, which would not be the first. The deadline for Alabama is this week. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on the problems and possible solutions.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In December, 33-year-old Ryan Rust was found dead in his solitary cell at Alabama's Holman prison, a belt around his neck.
HARMONY RUST-BODKE: He's my little brother.
ELLIOTT: His sister Harmony Rust-Bodke keeps his ashes in a gilded, red urn in honor of his favorite college football team.
RUST-BODKE: This is Ryan in this one. And that's the Crimson color because he is an Alabama fan. Everything he had was Alabama.
ELLIOTT: Rust-Bodke says Ryan Rust was back in prison on a parole violation and found the conditions unbearable, like the time he couldn't get medical treatment for months after an inmate hit him in the head with a metal lock wrapped in a sock.
RUST-BODKE: He was stabbed so many times. He was cut with a box blade from his shoulder blade down his back.
ELLIOTT: She says he suffered from PTSD and had been put on suicide watch the month before he died. He'd also tried to jump the fence in an attempt to escape. Rust-Bodke says he was desperate.
RUST-BODKE: I believe strongly that if the guards would've done the job that they were paid to do, that he'd still be alive.
ELLIOTT: Horrific conditions are outlined in detail in a Justice Department report that found Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner attacks and sexual abuse. It cites cases of inmate deaths, rapes and extortion of the families of prisoners. The findings are no surprise to David Wise, a former warden who worked in the Alabama Department of Corrections from 1983 until 2010. He calls the system barbaric.
DAVID WISE: Most of it's about robbing and stealing, about cell phones and drugs. It's rampant here because you don't have enough staff to control it.
ELLIOTT: He says basic security protocols are not in place. And often, it's the guards who traffic in the contraband. Alabama's prison system is in crisis in part due to chronic overcrowding and severe understaffing. Back in the 1970s, the state's prisons were under federal control because of the same issue. And over the next 40 years, Alabama has been forced by the courts to resolve issues, including a lack of mental health and medical care, male guards sexually abusing female inmates and using hitching posts and chain gangs to control inmates.
CHARLOTTE MORRISON: The state has an enormous undertaking, given that it has allowed this crisis to continue for decades now.
ELLIOTT: Charlotte Morrison is a senior attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which advocates on behalf of prisoners. She says the state has failed to properly recruit and train staff and condones a violent and punitive approach rather than focusing on rehabilitation. Morrison says the underlying problem is a crisis of leadership. The Justice Department found evidence that officials at the Alabama Department of Corrections are deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm and either unable or unwilling to deal with the issues. I asked Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn why.
JEFF DUNN: Have we not done everything possible that we can do? Yeah, I'm open to that criticism. But are we doing everything that we can right now within our power to make changes and to not repeat those mistakes? Yeah, we're doing that, too.
MORRISON: Dunn says the Department of Corrections is implementing some federal recommendations and adopting a new strategic plan that focuses on staffing, infrastructure, programming and culture.
DUNN: We're not trying to hide anything. We are owning the problems that we have. We are recognizing that we have significant resource challenges that affect the speed and intensity with which we can address issues.
ELLIOTT: Sentencing reforms about five years ago have brought down the number of prisoners. But the system is still at 164% capacity with only half the staff it needs. An aggressive recruiting campaign is underway. But more officers alone won't be enough to avoid a lawsuit that could result in the Alabama prison system going back under federal control.
CAM WARD: When they breathe down your neck, you're going to fix it one way or the other.
ELLIOTT: Republican State Senator Cam Ward chairs the bipartisan Prison Oversight Committee, which has introduced sweeping legislation that includes sentencing and parole reform, hiring incentives and spending billions to build new prisons.
WARD: The problem we have is this - in politics, it's never popular to fund prisons. But it's a necessity. It's a constitutional necessity. But everyone puts prisons last. So what happens is it builds up year after year after year until these problems are on your plate, and you've ignored them for too long. And we did that. We ignored it for too long. So now we're playing a lot of catch up.
ELLIOTT: But lawmakers say they're not likely to catch up during this legislative session, despite Wednesday's deadline from the Department of Justice. There's talk of a special session later this summer, but there appears to be no sense of urgency.
ALEXIS: You need to turn this over to the federal government. Let them run the show. You've proven that you cannot run a prison system.
ELLIOTT: That's Alexis (ph), who only wants to use her first name to protect her son, a former inmate who was sexually assaulted.
ALEXIS: I think that the prison system is now such a corrupt system. And building three more is not the answer. You can't run what you've got.
ELLIOTT: She experienced just how corrupt the system is, paying nearly $9,000 in extortion when guards and inmates would call demanding money for her son's life. Dangerous conditions persist. So far this year, there have been eight homicides and eight suicides inside Alabama's prisons. Attorney Ebony Howard with the Southern Poverty Law Center says little has changed since the Department of Justice released its findings.
EBONY HOWARD: People in Alabama prisons are still dying. They're still not getting all of the things that the Constitution requires them to have in terms of conditions and medical care and mental health care. All of the atrocities that are laid out in the findings that are - are happening literally right now.
ELLIOTT: The question is whether Alabama's plan to improve prison conditions will be enough to avoid federal intervention. Debbie Elliott, NPR News Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.