By Gary Lloyd
MONTGOMERY — The Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice today, urging it to investigate allegations of violence, abuse and neglect of teenagers at the Jefferson County Jail in downtown Birmingham.
The letter states that Alabama permits teenagers aged 16 and 17 to be automatically charged as adults for certain offenses, and those 14 years and older to be transferred to the circuit court by a juvenile court judge for any offense.
“Let’s be clear: these children have not been found guilty of any crime and even if they had, the abuse and neglect that they are forced to suffer is cruel and unusual,” said Ebony Howard, SPLC senior staff attorney. “These children are unquestionably more damaged than adults by the conditions they endure in this facility; further, any chance they have to be rehabilitated is taken from them.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center asked the Department of Justice to investigate civil rights violations pursuant to its authority under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980. Most teens interviewed by the law center reported inadequate medical care, according to a news release.
Though it was built to house 1,075 people, the Jefferson County Jail has been over capacity for the last several years. In 2011, there were only 19 deputies guarding 1,200 people, the SPLC stated.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Randy Christian said the sheriff’s office invited the Southern Poverty Law Center in at its request to interview juveniles housed in the jail “because we have nothing to hide.”
“We have invited media in and many times reported ourselves during Jefferson County’s financial crisis about deplorable conditions caused by overcrowding,” Christian said. “Having said that, it’s important to remember that the only juveniles we house in our jail have been charged as adults. That means we aren’t talking about petty thieves and angels, we are talking about murderers, rapists and armed robbers that have no reason to tell the truth and every reason to mislead the SPLC. Their claims are baseless.”
Christian said he hopes the re-opening of the county jail in Bessemer alleviated the deplorable conditions in the Birmingham jail.
“The rest of it is headline grabbing about a group of criminals that would likely cut the throats of those that interviewed them if they were out on the streets,” Christian said. “Jail is a tough place to be. We wished these criminals would work a little harder to stay out of it. We are going to treat the inmates fairly and humanly while they are in our system and comply with federal mandated standards. We certainly aren’t going to coddle them like they are in a country club.”
Howard said the juveniles should not be forever damaged as a result of their time at the Jefferson County Jail.
“If we care about our young people, our communities and the future, we cannot tolerate this abuse and neglect,” Howard said.
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.