Mitchell Cosby, 41, was stabbed to death Wednesday at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama.
Mr. Cosby is at least the fourth incarcerated person killed at Donaldson in the past four months. On February 22, Barry Gardner was stabbed to death in a Donaldson dormitory. On February 24, Victor Russo died after suffering blunt force trauma injuries from being struck in the head by a senior officer at the prison. One week later on March 2, William Jennings was beaten to death in a two-man cell at Donaldson.
The Department of Justice began a statewide investigation of the Alabama prison system in October 2016 to determine whether incarcerated people were adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse as well as from abuse by officers and whether they were provided safe and sanitary living conditions.
Donaldson Correctional Facility
At that time, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama said, “The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates.”
Overcrowding and lack of sufficient staff to safely operate prisons are among the factors drive violence in Alabama’s prisons, federal investigators found. The lack of sufficient security staff means that housing units holding hundreds of people are left unsupervised for hours at a time, officers do not control movement within prison facilities, and regular searches for drugs, weapons, and other contraband are not conducted. This has fueled an epidemic of drug use, untreated mental illness, and a thriving underground economy in which extortion and debt collection is enforced through violence and sexual assault.
In 2017, a federal court ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to significantly increase its staffing to ensure that critical posts impacting safety in the prisons are not left unfilled. But staffing levels have instead fallen at many prisons, including Donaldson, where security positions went from 69% filled in 2016 to 33% in 2021.
Justice Department Findings
In its initial findings letter in April 2019, the Justice Department concluded that conditions in the state’s prisons are unconstitutional. The letter informed Alabama officials that “an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis.”
They also noted that the frequency of violence had increased dramatically since their investigation began, even with federal prosecutors and experts consistently raising their concerns and suggesting potential solutions to ADOC leadership throughout the investigation.
At least 73 people have been killed in Alabama’s prisons since the federal investigation began.
In December 2020, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama to enforce the constitutional rights of the state’s incarcerated people. In the 18 months since that lawsuit was filed, at least 20 people have been killed in Alabama’s prisons. The violence remains widespread—homicides were reported in 10 of the state’s 13 prisons for men during this period.
From the DOJ regarding the lawsuit involving Alabama:
Justice Department filed suit against the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections. The complaint alleges that the conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Constitution because Alabama fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.
“The United States Constitution requires Alabama to make sure that its prisons are safe and humane,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice conducted a thorough investigation of Alabama’s prisons for men and determined that Alabama violated and is continuing to violate the Constitution because its prisons are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence. The violations have led to homicides, rapes, and serious injuries. The Department of Justice looks forward to proving its case in an Alabama federal courtroom.”
“Our office is committed to ensuring that all citizens’ constitutional rights are respected” said Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama William R. Chambers Jr. “We will continue to work tirelessly to correct the constitutional deficiencies identified by our investigation into the state prison system.”
“The results of the investigation into safety and excessive force issues within Alabama’s prisons are distressing and continue to require real and immediate attention,” said U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama Louis V. Franklin Sr. “We hope the filing of this complaint conveys the department’s continued commitment to ensuring that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that one of the primary responsibilities of government is to keep our citizens safe,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard W. Moore. “That responsibility extends to citizens incarcerated within Alabama prisons. Our investigation has demonstrated that constitutionally required standards have not been met in Alabama prisons and this must be corrected. I am disappointed that the efforts of both Alabama officials and Department of Justice officials to find appropriate solutions have not resulted in a mutually agreed upon resolution. Our oath as public officials now requires us to follow the Constitution and to pursue justice in the courts.”
The lawsuit is the result of a multi-year investigation into allegations of constitutional violations within Alabama’s prisons for men conducted by the department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama. As required by the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the department provided the state with written notice of the supporting facts for these alleged conditions, and the minimum remedial measures necessary to address them in Notice Reports issued on April 2, 2019 and July 23, 2020. CRIPA authorizes the department to act when it has reasonable cause to believe there is a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to correctional facilities operated by or on behalf of state or local government. For over 20 months the department has engaged in negotiations with the state without achieving a settlement that would correct the deficiencies identified by the department’s investigation.
Today’s lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to address deficient conditions identified by the department’s investigation. The complaint contains allegations of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, which must be proven in federal court. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages.DOJ.GOV