People Living as Guinea Pigs @ St. Clair Correctional Facility: An Alabama Prison’s Unrelenting Descent Into Violence

Alabama's Foulest Family Destruction & Gender Annihilation Center. From [NyTimes] The door opened and there stood a man with knives in both hands. Michael McGregor recognized him immediately. Since Mr. McGregor had arrived at the prison the day before, the man had twice propositioned him for sex and asked if he wanted to buy a knife.

Mr. McGregor, 52, with a long but mostly nonviolent record — some bad checks, a stolen car, a couple of two-decade-old minor robberies — had been unnerved enough to request a move to a different part of the prison. No, he was told. Not right now.

He returned to his cell, shut the door behind him and tried to sleep.

Now here was the man beside him. The door locks at this prison, he later learned, were all but useless. The man, he would also learn, had been convicted of jail rape before.

“You know what time it is,” the man said.

Attacks, like the one on Mr. McGregor, which left him “pouring blood like a water hose,” have happened with grim regularity at St. Clair Correctional Facility, one of six maximum-security prisons in Alabama. In recent years, even by the standards of one of the nation’s most dysfunctional prison systems, St. Clair stood out for its violence.

“The frequency of assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries is quite simply among the highest I have observed in my 43-year career in corrections,” Steve J. Martin, who has examined hundreds of prisons nationwide as a corrections expert, wrote in a 2016 report prepared for a lawsuit over conditions at St. Clair. The prison reflected “a total breakdown of the necessary basic structures that are required to operate a prison safely,” he added in an interview.

In October, the Justice Department announced an investigation into all of the male prisons in Alabama, an extraordinarily broad inquiry, focusing on reports of rampant violence and sexual abuse at the hands of both inmates and staff members. The prisons here are operating at around 172 percent of capacity. This is actually a significant improvement after sentencing reforms, but it has been offset by a sharp plunge in the number of corrections officers.

“We’re already the most overcrowded,” Jeff Dunn, the Alabama corrections commissioner, said at a recent legislative committee hearing. “It won’t be long until we’re the most understaffed and most violent.”

As legislators in Montgomery wrangle over ideas to fix the prisons — the current one being a much-disputed and ever-shifting plan to build several “large-scale” prisons to replace most of the old ones — the degeneration of St. Clair looms in the background.

A lawsuit on behalf of inmates, including Mr. McGregor, by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative argues that the bloodshed at St. Clair is due in part to overcrowding, understaffing and shoddy facilities, but also, and perhaps primarily, to failures of leadership and “a culture that tolerated violence.” In interviews, more than a dozen current and former officers and inmates echoed this sentiment.

“Until you address that,” said David Wise, a former St. Clair warden, speaking of the system’s failure to understand the inmate population and manage prisons accordingly, “you can go down to the Legislature and talk about spending a billion dollars all day long, and you’re not going to fix a damn thing. You’re going to have a facility that’ll be tore up in 20 months.”

A Struggle to Keep Control

A campus of low-slung brick buildings surrounded by a lethal electric fence, St. Clair opened here in the Appalachian foothills in 1983, a consequence of judicial pressure. Denouncing the “rampant violence and jungle atmosphere” of Alabama prisons, a federal judge ordered relief of overcrowding at a time when the state prison population was less than a quarter of what it is now.

A cadre of new officers, many of them exiles from the shuttering steel mills, came in with what Mr. Wise, who started his career as an officer at St. Clair, called a “cut-off ax handle mentality” about how to treat prisoners. Within two years, the men inside revolted, seizing guns, beating five officers and holding 22 others hostage. The memory of the siege lingered, Mr. Wise said, though until recent years, the prison had been kept more or less under control. [MORE]