The Justice Department announced today that it has opened an investigation of the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Alabama, focusing on the treatment of juveniles. The investigation will assess whether juveniles are detained at the jail in conditions that pose a serious risk of harm to their physical and psychological well-being.
The department has received allegations that juveniles at the jail are regularly housed with adult detainees, have been victims of sexual abuse and have been approached by adult detainees for sexual activity and favors. Additionally, juveniles, including those with diagnosed mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities, allegedly are routinely placed in solitary confinement or lockdown—sometimes for months at a time—with little or no access to the law library, telephone, commissary, educational opportunities and other services.
“Isolation—particularly the prolonged and restrictive lockdown alleged in Jefferson County—can lead to paranoia, anxiety, depression and suicide, and exacerbate pre-existing psychological harms,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Indeed, the 2012 Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence concluded that ‘[n]owhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.’"
“Our commitment to finding solutions to problems in Alabama’s troubled jails and prisons is ongoing,” said U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance for the Northern District of Alabama. “Where possible, the best solution is always a collaborative approach that encourages the state and counties to correct conditions that are constitutionally inadequate. However, we have not hesitated to file suit where necessary.”
The department will conduct the investigation using its authority under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Under CRIPA, the Attorney General has the authority to investigate violations of the constitutional rights of prisoners in “institutions,” including county jails, where such violations are “pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.” The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act authorizes the Attorney General to bring suit against any governmental entity that has engaged in “a pattern or practice” of depriving juveniles of their rights secured by the Constitution or federal statute. The department has conducted similar investigations in other jurisdictions, including of the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi, the jails on Rikers Island in New York, the Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center in Louisiana and the Scioto and Marion Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Ohio.