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New podcast 'Deliberate Indifference' amplifies the impact of prison failures in Ala.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice came out with a damning report about Alabama's prisons for men. It noted pervasive violence among inmates and said that Alabama was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners by not protecting them. Now a new podcast from WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., digs into the story of that prison crisis and the people living through it, including staff, affected families and people locked up inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSANI JENNINGS: We see the problems, and we live through the problems, but it's like, you know, it doesn't make a difference. We don't have a voice to cause any positive change.

RASCOE: Mary Scott Hodgin, the host of the "Deliberate Indifference" podcast, joins us now. And just a warning - this conversation will mention violence, so it may not be appropriate for all listeners. Mary Scott, thanks for being here.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Thank you.

RASCOE: Can you start by telling us more details about this DOJ report? What sort of violence are we talking about, and how widespread is it?

HODGIN: Sure. The Department of Justice says that the violence is systemic, so it's across all of Alabama's 13 major prisons for men. Now, there are roughly 16,000 people locked up in these facilities for felony-level crimes. And justice officials say that inside, inmates beat and stab other inmates. There's also sexual assault and illicit drug use. And in recent years, there have been more and more homicides. Another thing that the DOJ found is that correctional officers frequently use excessive force and abuse incarcerated men out of retribution or to inflict pain. Now, in response, Alabama prison officials have said that they're working to address these concerns, and they've said that the Department of Justice is ignoring their efforts. People inside these prisons echo what the DOJ has said, like the man we heard from in the intro, Hassani Jennings, who served almost 30 years for a capital murder conviction. You know, he says the violence is just part of daily life.

RASCOE: Why are these prisons in particular so dangerous?

HODGIN: Yeah. I mean, justice officials say two of the biggest problems are overcrowding and understaffing. Often, there's maybe one correctional officer who's overseeing upwards of 100 people in a dormitory. The Justice Department also cites unsafe facilities, as well as corruption and mismanagement among staff. And with many of these problems, there are policy decisions that got us here, right? For example, the overcrowding has a lot to do with sentencing laws passed decades ago, which led to more people going to prison for longer periods of time.

RASCOE: You spoke with dozens of inmates for this story, as well as family members of some who were killed. Could you maybe tell us about one of their stories, and how it speaks to these broader issues?

HODGIN: Early on in my reporting, I heard about the death of Brandon Ladd, a 31-year-old man who was killed after another inmate stabbed him in the neck. Ladd had been incarcerated for about 10 years. He was serving a 23-year sentence for armed burglary and kidnapping. I connected with his family and I ended up attending his memorial service, and his cousin, Aniya King (ph), said something that really stuck with me. Years earlier, she had lost her brother to gun violence, and she said, you know, when someone dies in prison, it's not viewed the same way as when someone dies in the free world.

ANIYA KING: They don't look at him initially like he's a victim. The first thing is, well, what was he in prison for? Or what caused it? So, yeah, they kind of, you know, dehumanize him.

HODGIN: And this is something that I heard over and over again, from other families, people in prison, advocates, this idea that because people inside prison have been convicted of crimes, people don't care as much about the violence that they experience.

RASCOE: This report came out in 2019. Has Alabama made any meaningful progress toward fixing some of these problems since then?

HODGIN: The DOJ says not much has changed. They ended up suing Alabama over this in late 2020. That lawsuit is winding its way through the federal court. A trial date has been set for 2024. The state, meanwhile, says that they've been taking steps to improve. Their main response has been approving new prison construction to improve conditions and deal with overcrowding. That plan is estimated to cost around $1.3 billion. And more than a quarter of the costs will come from COVID relief money. It's been criticized by advocates and some of the state's Democratic lawmakers. They want to see reforms to keep people out of prison, like changes to sentencing laws and releasing more people on parole. Now, in terms of what could come from the federal lawsuit, the judge could agree with the Department of Justice and tell the state to meet certain standards. But the federal courts are limited in how much they can intervene.

RASCOE: And Alabama is not the only state that has issues like this, right?

HODGIN: Right. This year, the DOJ released a report outlining similar conditions at Parchman prison, which is right next door in Mississippi. Justice officials are also investigating Georgia's prison system. And just recently, NPR and the Marshall Project published a report about violence and abuse in a federal prison in Illinois. Members of Congress have now called on the DOJ to investigate that facility.

RASCOE: That's Mary Scott Hodgin, host of WBHM's "Deliberate Indifference" podcast. You can listen at deliberateindifference.org. Thanks for being with us.

HODGIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.