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Alabama Reopens ‘Deplorable’ Prison To Quarantine New Prisoners

Approximately 100 men will be transported to Draper Correctional Facility, which has long been known for its nightmarish conditions.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Alabama is planning to use a condemned prison to quarantine county jail prisoners before transferring them to serve their sentences at the state’s prisons. 

Approximately 100 men will be transported to Draper Correctional Facility in Eastern Alabama, which has been closed since 2018 and has long been known for its nightmarish conditions. 

The scheme, which is set to begin next week, is part of a pilot program the Alabama Department of Corrections announced today to restart prison admissions following a 30-day moratorium on new intakes from county jails to protect against COVID-19. 

According to a 2017 engineering firm report, Draper, which was built in 1938 and was Alabama’s oldest prison before it closed, would need $30 million in repairs to meet minimum operating standards.

In 2019, U.S. Department of Justice investigators called conditions within the facility “deplorable” and noted “numerous dangerous and unsanitary conditions” including raw sewage, vermin, and toxic fumes that made one person on its team sick. Investigators visited the prison in 2017, one month before Alabama Department of Corrections officials announced its planned closure.

When it is reopened, prisoners will be quarantined in a renovated space adjacent to the prison used for vocational classes, the visitation yard, and the portion of the main facility that ADOC said has been renovated. Agency spokesperson Samantha Rose noted that “appropriate health and security modifications have been made within the previously decommissioned area of Draper to safely house quarantined intakes.” She did not immediately return an email from The Appeal asking for details on the modifications. 

After the completion of the pilot program, ADOC said it is planning to assess any changes that must be made before it starts admitting another round of intakes. 

Starting last week, incarcerated workers from Staton Correctional Facility, which shares a fence with Draper, loaded approximately 360 cots and portable toilets into three units in the prison, according to one prisoner who said he assisted in the task. He and another prisoner spoke to The Appeal on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution. Draper shares a site with Staton and Elmore Correctional Center, which is located one mile away.

Prisoners inside a dormitory last week at the Elmore Correctional Center. Courtesy of Fight Toxic Prisons

As of today, at least one Staton staff member and one Elmore staff member have tested positive for coronavirus, according to ADOC. The agency has tested five prisoners at Staton and two at Elmore for COVID-19, all of which returned negative results. One test is still pending. 

Prisoners said that a COVID-19 outbreak seems inevitable at the prisons, which house approximately 2,550 people in dormitories. Both prisons are overcrowded; Staton is operating at 274 percent capacity while Elmore is at 200 percent, according to ADOC statistics.  At most, bunk beds sit three feet apart, far short of the six feet advised for social distancing, they said. 

At Staton, 68 men share three toilets and three sinks in one dorm, pictures obtained by The Appeal show. Neither corrections officers nor prisoners wear masks, according to one prisoner. While ADOC has started distributing cloth masks to its facilities, no prisoners at Staton have received them yet, he said. (An image posted by the Free Alabama Movement, a coalition of incarcerated people, showed a form that prisoners were required to fill out confirming that they had received a mask and read how to use it properly.)

“They simply aren’t available anywhere,” he wrote in a text message.  

Of the atmosphere at Staton, he said, “I don’t know how to describe it besides different. There’s something looming in the air.”

Though ADOC announced it would provide hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, he said that has not been the case. He added that he is saving his money for when he said he inevitably contracts the virus so he can buy medicine that he and other prisoners are planning to have smuggled in. “Guys are doing research to find out what’s working and what’s not,” he said.

There is one infirmary on the site, located at Staton, to care for sick prisoners from the two facilities. 

The mother of a Staton prisoner, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, wrote in an email to The Appeal that her son also reported a lack of social distancing and hygiene products. “It is only a matter of time before Governor Ivey will not have to worry about overcrowding, but she will need a supply of body bags,” she said.