By Stephen Cooper
Since opening its doors on Dec. 15, 1969, Alabama’s William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, has been a bastion of violence, fear, pain, and baleful human suffering.
Built on a shoestring budget of five million dollars during Governor Lurleen Wallace’s administration, it took just five years for Holman prison’s perpetually overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary conditions to draw the ire of federal officials. In an article titled, “Court closes Alabama prison gates,” dated Aug. 30, 1975, The St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times), in neighboring Florida, reported that two federal district court judges, William Brevard Hand and Frank M. Johnson, Jr., ordered Alabama to stop sending prisoners to Holman (and three other prisons) due to overcrowding and the accompanying inhumanity, violence and other perils that brings.
Forty-one years later, nothing has changed. Connor Sheets for al.com wrote Oct 20, 2016, that “[v]olence continues to rage at Alabama’s notorious William C. Holeman Correctional facility in Atmore. In just the past two weeks, a Holman inmate was stabbed during a four-way fight and another died of an apparent suicide.” These incidents come “less than two weeks after the Department of Justice launched an investigation into violence, sex abuse, overcrowding and other issues at Alabama’s prisons.” Two weeks earlier, al.com’s Christopher Harriss, reported that“[a]s many as nine corrections officers failed to report” for work at Holman, “citing increasingly dangerous conditions and fears that they may be killed while on duty.”
In contrast to these jarring reports, Alabama’s Department of Corrections’ website presents a much more idyllic and serene (if also bleak and plantation-like) description of Holman: “Holman is located ten miles north of Atmore, Alabama[.] The perimeter of the security compound is surrounded by two fences. The inner fence is taut wire fence with the outer fence chain link. The compound has six towers and two perimeter vehicles which operate twenty-four hours a day. During the hours of darkness, the perimeter is fully lighted.
The countryside in the vicinity of Holman prison is farm and timberland. The main crops are cotton and peanuts. Located directly behind the facility within the security compound is an industrial area consisting of a Tag Plant where all the state’s motor vehicle tags are manufactured and a sewing factory which makes sheets and pillow cases that are distributed to other state prisons.”
What I’ve observed and know from first-hand experience is: every single employee the DOJ has, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, can take a junket down South to keep a twenty-four-hour vigil over how Alabamians treat their inmates, and still, it won’t do a damn bit of good.
Using history as a guide, even if under temporary federal scrutiny, prison conditions shape up briefly, as soon as the Yankees depart, it’ll be back to business as usual at Holman: Prisoners will be mashed together, one on top of the other. They’ll be kept indoors all day, every day, squashed in squalid, outdated, utterly inhumane, and unsafe conditions. They’ll be fed food you wouldn’t give a dog you hated. In wintertime, the heat will be kept just above testicle-freezing temperatures, and in summer (which, in this age of global warming, runs long, sometimes interminably), the temperature will be so oppressively hot – the degradation of humanity within its walls, so great – that Holman becomes, literally, hell on earth.
Federal oversight of Holman and the rest of Alabama’s troubled prison system is like stretching a small band-aid over a gaping wound.
Until Alabamians elect a governor and legislators willing to make a real commitment (and financial investment) in the way the state treats its prisoners, even those convicted of the most heinous crimes, Alabama’s prison problems will exist in perpetuity.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It is long past time for Alabama’s antiquated prison system to emerge from the Dark Ages.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.