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Lawsuits against prison employees, payments from liability fund, spike in recent years

Ten years ago, in 2014, a state fund paid out $177,567 related to lawsuits against Alabama Department of Corrections’ employees and leaders.

In 2023, it paid $3.5 million. And in the first three months of fiscal 2024, $1.3 million, according to information obtained by Alabama Daily News from the Alabama Department of Finance through an open records request.

The General Liability Trust Fund was established 40 years ago to provide liability protection for state employees of the General Fund who are acting in the scope of their jobs when sued, finance explained. In the case of ADOC, the fund can cover correctional officers, wardens and the commissioner if sued by another state employee, an inmate or an inmate’s family. The GLTF operates much like insurance. State agencies pay in to participate. 

The GLTF isn’t used when the state or an agency is sued over a new law or policy or if the lawsuit is seeking to change procedures. For example, there have been no claims in the GLTF related to the now decade-old Braggs v. Dunn lawsuit that alleged ADOC ignored inmates’ mental health and medical needs and resulted in an ongoing court order to increase staffing at prisons.

The number of claims against the fund has increased from 14 in 2014 to 236 in 2023, an increase of 1,585%. The number of claims stayed in the teens until 2019, when a significant uptick began, according to ADN’s analysis of the data, broken down by prison and year, provided by finance. 

Payments from the fund are in two categories: Those related to lawyers’ fees and court costs and those related indemnities paid to litigants or attorneys, finance explained. Since 2014, about $8.2 million in expenses have come from the former category and $5.2 million from the latter to total about $13.5 million.

The prisons where workers had the most claims, and most expensive lawsuits, were St. Clair Correctional Facility, totaling $4.47 million, and Donaldson, totaling $2.48 million. 

Meanwhile, prisons that hadn’t previously had claims against the GLTF do now, including Hamilton Aged and Infirmed, which has seen four claims since 2022.

In a written response to ADN, the ADOC outlined a few reasons for the volume of lawsuits against it:

  • “Some lawsuits have matured which increases costs such as discovery, mediation, trial preparation, etc.
  • Inmates are litigious, and the department is an easy target.
  • Inmate population continues to increase with more violent offenders, which results in more incidents and ultimately more lawsuits.
  • The Attorney General’s Office now handles all ADOC litigation.
  • Baseless claims still must be defended.”

Other agencies with significant payments from the GLTF in the last decade include the Alabama Department of Human Resources, including its foster care division, $7.8 million; Attorney General’s Office, $3.7 million; Alabama Department of Mental Health and its hospitals, $3.6 million; Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, $2.3 million; Governor’s Office, $1.5 million; Alabama Department of Transportation, $1.8 million; and Pardons and Parole Board, $1.2 million. But these agencies haven’t seen the same recent spike in claims that ADOC facilities have.

According to finance, payments for both indemnity and expenses vary greatly from year to year depending on several factors, including the number and seriousness of lawsuits filed during the period in question. Others include the length of time a matter takes to be resolved either by dismissal, settlement, or trial and the timing of the filing — an event in 2024 might not become a lawsuit until 2026, finance explained. The department also said “the seemingly ever-increasing litigious environment” can be a factor. 

The state has for years been under a federal court order to improve conditions and staffing at its crowded prisons. A recent report showed assaults on prisoners increased by 41% in 2023 over 2022.

But Republican legislative leaders say the increase in lawsuits isn’t solely the fault of the prison system.

“It is simply an easy target for those that go on the attack and have nothing to lose,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said about lawsuits against state agencies. “There’s absolutely nothing to lose bringing a suit.” 

He said too often the cases are settled too quickly.

“I think we need to take a more aggressive stance on that,” Albritton, a retired attorney, said. 

House Speaker Pro Tem Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, said the increases are a result of violent, crowded conditions in prisons and “the litigious society in which we live.”

At a recent meeting of the Legislative Contract Review Committee, Pringle again complained about the federal government not allowing states to block cell phone signals in prisons. Disabling cell phones in prisons would cut down on illegal activity and enterprise and make prisons safer, he said. Pringle and other lawmakers have said they’ve had constituents extorted by prison gangs using cell phones.

Last year, attorneys general from around the country asked Congress to update a decades-old law to allow states to jam cell phones in state prisons. 

“We’re never going to secure and make our prisons safer for prisoners until we address the illegal cell phones,” Pringle told Alabama Daily News. 

At the same meeting, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, countered that without cell phone video, the world outside the prisons wouldn’t know how awful life inside them can be.

Corrections’ current conditions and operations make it ripe for lawsuits with merit, he said. 

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find any element of the Alabama Department of Corrections or the Board of Pardons and Paroles that is operating effectively or efficiently,” England told ADN. 

Pringle said he’s hopeful that two new men’s prisons will make inmates and ADOC staff safer, but without a federal policy change on cell phones there could still be dangerous activity. 

England also said the physical features of the new prisons — more secure pods to house prisoners instead of open dorms — should make the new sites more secure.

“But the problems with our systems go well beyond a new facility,” England said. “At the rate we’re going, we’re just going to stuff old problems into a new building.” 

In December, Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, joined families of inmates at a State House meeting to beg lawmakers to make prisons safer. They spoke of the assaults on, and deaths, of their loved ones.

About the expenses from the GLTF, Crowder noted they’re minuscule compared to recent ADOC expenses — an expected more than $1 billion for the new prison in Elmore County, a multi-year $1 billion health care contract, and the department’s about $660 million annual operations budget.

“But the dramatic increase in payouts over the last decade shows that more money, better paid guards, and the promise of a giant new prison has done nothing to stop wrongful acts by state actors inside the prisons,” Crowder said.

“How about we create some true oversight and accountability to stop these abuses instead of putting Alabama taxpayers on the hook for ADOC’s failures?”

 

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