Alabama Department of Corrections investigating rash of deaths at Donaldson Correctional Facility

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Alabama Department of Corrections officials say they are investigating three deaths at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer in the past two weeks.

The deaths come amid ongoing negotiations between the State of Alabama and the U.S. Justice Department, which found in April that Alabama's prison conditions appear to be violating the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But the prison violence and death continues amid the review.

The investigations include the deaths of:

Marco Dewayne Tolbert, 32, of Birmingham, was found hanging from a light fixture in his cell on Sept. 26, the Alabama Department of Corrections reported.

Steven Davis, 35, of Graysville, died Oct. 5. The DOC says Davis rushed out of his cell brandishing one prison-made weapon in each hand and attempted to strike an officer. He was subdued and later died from his injuries, the DOC said.

Monday, Elvin Burnseed, 53, of Dothan, was the third inmate to die.

"ADOC hasn't released much about that death, other than that person was found dead in their housing unit," said CJ Sandley, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has sued the State of Alabama's corrections system over prison conditions.

Donaldson has had 14 inmate deaths in the past year and by far the highest number of assaults in the state prison system in that time. Figures show it's woefully understaffed.

"There are times when there is a single corrections officer in a unit of hundreds of people. Correctional officer rounds, which are supposed to occur regularly to ensure that people are alive and well, don't happen," Sandley said.

Alabama's prisons are at 167 percent of capacity.

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed building a number of new prisons, but Sandley says that narrow focus won't address the problems.

"We continue to be incredibly concerned about the level of violence at ADOC," she said, "about correctional understaffing, which has seen almost no improvement over the last couple of years."

Ivey's office released a statement on the prison problems on Thursday, saying they require a multifaceted approach.

"In response to the two incidents, the Alabama Department of Corrections launched investigations, which are ongoing," the Governor's office news release said. "The governor has stressed that the challenges facing our state’s prison system are multifaceted, which means that we need to have a multifaceted approach in order to reach a solution. One side of the equation is the need for prison infrastructure. The other side of it is the criminal justice aspect, which is why she established the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. They are tasked with analyzing data and best practices to help guide possible reform in the system. Prison reform remains a top priority of the Administration."

The policy group's last meeting is January 12. The group is due to report to the governor before the legislative session opens in February.

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