Agreement Settles Lawsuit Challenging Overcrowded and Dangerous Conditions at Donaldson Correctional Facility

21st April, 2011
Southern Center for Human Rights

MONTGOMERY, AL, April 21, 2011 Three incarcerated men who filed a class action lawsuit contesting conditions at Donaldson Correctional Facility, Alabamas highest security prison, have settled their case in an agreement with the Alabama Department of Corrections. The case, Hicks v. Hetzel, Civil Action No. 2:09-cv-155-WKW

, was filed in February 2009 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and attorneys Herman Watson, Jr. and Rebekah McKinney of Huntsville, Alabama.

Immediately after it was filed, plaintiffs lawsuit drew the support of the Alabama Correctional Organization (ACO), a group of officers employed in the state prison system. Captain Lloyd Wallace, President of the ACO, filed an affidavit in support of the lawsuit in which he stated that [i]mmediate action is required to remedy unsafe and overcrowded conditions for officers and inmates at Donaldson and other Alabama prisons.

The settlement concludes two years of litigation against the Department, which had hired the private law firm of Balch & Bingham LLP to defend conditions at the prison. Conditions at Donaldson are not yet where they need to be, said Sarah Geraghty, counsel for the plaintiffs. But today Donaldson is far less chaotic, dangerous, and crowded than it was before this case was filed.

Conditions at Donaldson Prior to Lawsuit
William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility (Donaldson) opened in 1982 as the West Jefferson Correctional Facility, with a capacity of 700 medium and minimum security prisoners. The prison was subsequently expanded, giving it a designed capacity of 968 men. The number of men confined at Donaldson has more than doubled over the years. As of December 2008, Donaldson was at 173.7% capacity, holding 1,681 men.

When Plaintiffs filed suit in February 2009, over 500 men at Donaldson were triple-bunked in cells measuring 7 x 10 feet; Donaldson had an officer-to-inmate ratio that was among the worst in the country; over 620 men were packed into open dorms, often supervised by just two roving officers; high security prisoners were able to leave their cellblocks and spend days at a time in less secure housing units without the knowledge of officers; applications of excessive force on prisoners went uninvestigated; assaults with knives occurred roughly once every ten days; and men were regularly rushed to the hospital with serious injuries.

Conditions at Donaldson were such that even those who sought to follow the rules and stay out of trouble were victimized. Former plaintiff John Hicks, for example, was sitting in a prison day room when a prisoner assaulted him with a broom handle, permanently blinding him in one eye. Plaintiff Charles Malec was asleep in his bunk when a prisoner slashed his face with a razor from his temple to his neck. At the time, there was no officer present in the dorm.

Improvements in Prison Conditions
In the years since the Hicks litigation was filed, the Department of Corrections made a number of positive changes to improve conditions for prisoners and officers at the prison. It eliminated the use of triple-bunking, reduced the prisons population, required officers to be present inside prison dormitories, and made other changes. Consequently, the level of violence at the prison was significantly reduced. For example, in 2008, there were 18 assaults at the prison requiring emergency off-site medical treatment; in 2009, the number was reduced to 10; and in 2010, there were approximately 5 such assaults.

Settlement Agreement
The settlement agreement requires the Department of Corrections to undertake certain obligations over a period of one year to further improve conditions at the prison. Specifically, the Department must:

require officers to be physically present 24 hours per day in many of the prisons dorms;
revise its use of force policy significantly;
maintain a certain level of allocated correctional officer positions at Donaldson;
end the practice of triple-bunking prisoners in cells built for two men;
solicit technical assistance from the National Institute of Corrections for help in reducing the presence of weapons and other contraband at Donaldson;
make certain repairs to the prisons physical plant, including fixing leaking roofs;
reconfigure dormitories to provide officers with clear lines of sight;
produce documentation regarding violent incidents at Donaldson to SCHR.

We appreciate the Departments commitment to improving safety and security for prisoners and officers at Donaldson, said Melanie Velez, counsel for the plaintiffs in the case. However, this was a case that the State could have and should have settled years ago, which would have avoided a needless waste of taxpayer dollars to defend indefensible prison conditions.

To read the Plaintiffs' Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment click here

For the Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment click here

Click here Plaintiffs' Reply in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment
For the Settlement Agreement click here