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'It's a bloodbath': staff describe life inside America's most violent prison

The Guardian The Guardian 21/10/2016 Matthew Teague in Atmore, Alabama
Curt Stidham’s collection of shanks from Holman prison. © Provided by Guardian News Curt Stidham’s collection of shanks from Holman prison.

People inside call it the Slaughter Pen.

The horrors of Holman penitentiary in southern Alabama – the stabbings, riots, fires, abuse – have earned it a reputation as the most violent prison in the United States. As recently as Thursday a prisoner cut a guard’s eye during a fight.

Related: DoJ to investigate Alabama prisons in 'possibly unprecedented' move

Holman stands alone, isolated, surrounded by mile after mile of cotton fields. It’s also at the centre of recent prisoner strikes across the country, and is the only place where correctional officers have gone on strike as well. On Oct. 6 the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) announced a state-wide investigation of Alabama’s prisons for men, targeting sex abuse, violence, and generally unsafe conditions for both prisoners and officers. Such a colossal investigation is, according to legal experts, unprecedented.

Current employees at the prison are afraid to discuss conditions inside. But Lt Curt Stidham agreed to meet and describe life at the prison for the Guardian. He left Holman this summer but Holman hasn’t left him; at a local pizza place he insisted on sitting in the corner, facing the doors. “I need to be able to see,” he said. “You’ll find all the officers are like this.”

He sketched a layout of the prison on a napkin, and described the hierarchy of officers. “There’s the warden at the top, then two captains, and then lieutenants,” he said. As a lieutenant his first order every day was to figure out how many of his shift officers had reported for duty. The prison is run by a staff as thin as the razor wire that surrounds the prison. Sometimes as few as nine guards would try to control the entire population, Stidham said.

And how big is the population?

“Nine-hundred fifty,” he said, in a facility built to house 637.

The department of corrections confirmed Stidham’s allegations. “Over-population and understaffing, yes,” said Bob Horton, spokesman for Alabama’s prisons. He described it as an intractable problem that took root in the 1970s and has flourished for decades due to “neglect”. “But there’s no one person or entity to point blame at,” he said. “This has been going on for decades.”

When the problems started

In the 1960s, the newly built William C. Holman prison represented the latest advancements, compared with previous medieval conditions. It had two wire fences and six towers, which should have given guards a constant view from every angle. But today it’s a shell game – typically only two of the towers are manned at any time.

The first warden at Holman, Novy Lee Hale, toured the prison with his granddaughter, Teresa. She still lives nearby, and stays in touch with staff. “I believe the correction officers are overworked, underpaid, and feel they are not backed by the administration,” she said recently.

According to the DoJ, the investigation will focus on whether prisoners are protected from physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and guards, and whether living conditions are sanitary and safe in general at men’s prisons.

The problems at Holman and other Alabama prisons started with what Horton, the prisons spokesman, called “tough-on-crime” laws; laws pushed by politicians who didn’t want to appear soft, but who also couldn’t afford to build enough prisons to house a mushrooming population of drug offenders. They arrived in droves, and they stayed longer; Lisa Graybill, a prisons expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, called it a “sentencing binge”.

Now Alabama has the nation’s most overcrowded prison system. It was built to hold 13,318 inmates. According to the department of correction’s latest report, in August, the population now exceeds 24,000.

That means officers have to cut corners, according to Stidham, the recently resigned lieutenant. Regulations might call for two officers to transport a prisoner, for instance, but there’s only one available. Or a lone guard might stand at the door of a dorm housing 115 inmates; if a group of prisoners assaults another one, it’s that guard’s job to wade into the chaos and protect the victim.

Stidham unfurled a canvas jacket on the trunk of his car, revealing dozens of prison-made knives. They ranged from small blades made of metal bed slats to a massive glass shard with a cloth-wrapped handle. “Would you go into that dorm?” he said.

The lieutenant said the problem goes far beyond cinematic notions of bullying guards or vicious prisoners. “No one is winning at Holman,” he said. “There is only survival.”

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow works with prisoners there. “It’s a bloodbath. There are killings every day at Holman,” he said Thursday. He served time himself, many years ago, but said Alabama’s prisons have since spiraled down. “Three Saturdays ago they had seven officers for a thousand-man prison. It creates a hostile environment. Everybody at Holman’s got knives. As soon as you arrive they tell you, ‘better get yourself a knife because everybody else has one’.”

The riots begin

The bloodbath spilled over in March. Inmates rioted, stabbing a guard. When the warden, then Carter Davenport, responded, they stabbed him too. They set fire to the dorm, and patrolled hallways while carrying full-length swords. 

The warden and guard survived the attack, and special security squads swept in to quash the riot. A few days later another riot flared up, and one inmate stabbed another. The warden called in the security squads again.

That’s when Stidham decided to resign. In September he got word that one of his officers, 44-year-old Kenneth Bettis, had refused to give a prisoner an extra tray of food, and the prisoner had stabbed him in the temple with an icepick-like weapon.

While Bettis was in the hospital the prisoners staged a strike on 9 September, refusing to work in the prison’s kitchen or the license-plate production plant. Inmates at other prisons across the U.S. enacted similar plans, involving as many as 24,000 prisoners who demanded safer living conditions.

A few days later Bettis, the guard, died in the hospital. That night the officers from Bettis’s shift all gathered at a gas station off the prison grounds, and discussed how to respond. Someone suggested officers call in sick during an extended “blue flu”. Others were angrier. They decided to skip work for one day, as a protest of Holman’s treacherous conditions. And they wouldn’t bend the rules for the prison’s administration anymore – if moving a prisoner required two guards, they would refuse to do it alone.

Related: Alabama riots reveal maximum security prison was a bomb waiting to explode

That’s when the warden’s white Chevrolet Impala pulled in to the parking lot, and everyone quickly changed the subject to Bettis’s death. They took each other’s hands.

“We all just gathered in a circle and started praying,” Stidham said. “The warden walked up and joined right in the prayer, and had no idea we were plotting against the prison.”

On the following Saturday just two officers showed up for work, crippling a shift that would normally require about 16 guards. “We brought in officers from other areas,” said Horton, the prisons representative. “It only lasted a day, if you want to call that a strike. They didn’t list any demands, but we know what their grievances were. We know the situation at Holman.”

He said the state plans to comply with federal investigators as they examine the prison system. “It’s welcomed,” he said.

The DoJ plans far-ranging look at threats in Alabama’s prisons, perpetrated by both guards and inmates, from sexual offenses to unsanitary conditions to physical violence.

“The constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DoJ’s civil rights division said in a statement. The general goal, she said, is “ensuring that the state’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm”.

In the meantime, turnover among prison guards is 60 percent. Thursday prisoners attacked an officer and reportedly tried to stab his eye, but his glasses deflected the blow and he survived with a cut to one eye.

Officers like Stidham say it’s not worth the risk. Among the guards who skipped work in protest, three never returned.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about a job at a little local jail. It’s in me, now,” he said. He stared at his hands. “I guess I’m just as institutionalized as the prisoners.”

Alabama governor Robert Bentley, right, tours Holman prison in March 2016 following the two uprisings. © Provided by Guardian News Alabama governor Robert Bentley, right, tours Holman prison in March 2016 following the two uprisings.

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