US finds “severe” problems in Alabama prisons

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The U.S. Justice Department has determined that Alabama’s prisons are violating the U.S. Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse and by housing them in unsafe and overcrowded facilities, according to a scathing report Wednesday that described the problems as “severe” and “systemic.”

The Federal Government also is putting the state on notice that it may sue if officials there don’t make improvements soon.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who leads the department’s civil rights division. “The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

The report detailed a litany of problems in the state’s 13 prisons for men, which together house roughly 16,000 inmates. Those include an overcrowding rate that the Justice Department says ranks among the highest in the nation and a “crisis level” staffing shortage.

In a single week in September 2017, the report found, two inmates stood guard at the doors of a dormitory in one facility while two others repeatedly stabbed a prisoner who eventually bled to death; an inmate at another facility was stabbed and had to be evacuated by helicopters; and a prisoner in a dorm reserved for inmates with good behavior was woken from sleep when two inmates attacked him with a sock filled with metal locks.

The report is only the latest blow to the troubled Alabama prison system, which has come under criticism for violence, overcrowding and a high suicide rate. A federal judge in 2017 ruled that the state has provided “horrendously inadequate” care to mentally ill inmates.

The findings are the result of an investigation opened in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration, which was aggressive in launching wide-ranging investigations into troubled police departments and corrections systems. In a number of cases, those probes led to agreements to make changes under federal oversight. The Trump administration, in contrast, has taken a more hands-off approach.

Before he left office last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime Alabama senator, released a memo limiting the use of consent decrees struck between the Federal Government and local agencies under investigation.

Alabama has been trying to address crowding through sentencing reform, but the threat of a federal lawsuit will force the state to address other issues such as sexual assaults in prisons, said Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs a legislative prison oversight committee.

“We don’t have much of a choice. Something has got to happen,” Ward said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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US investigates seizure risk with electronic cigarettes

WASHINGTON – U.S. health officials are investigating whether electronic cigarettes may trigger seizures in some people who use the nicotine-vaping devices.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Wednesday it has reviewed 35 reports of seizures among e-cigarettes users, mainly in young people. Regulators stressed it’s not yet clear whether vaping is responsible. But they said they’re concerned and encouraged the public to report information about the issue.

These cases warrant “investigation into whether there is in fact a connection,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. Gottlieb is stepping down on Friday after nearly two years heading the agency.

Cases go back to 2010 and were reported to the FDA or poison control centers around the country. Regulators said they detected an uptick in reports beginning mid-2018. While they represent a tiny fraction of Americans who have used e-cigarettes, many safety issues with foods, supplements and other consumer products can go unrecognized because reporting is voluntary.

Most e-cigarettes heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable vapor. The battery-powered devices have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry though there are few standards, including how much nicotine they deliver. Additionally, many refillable e-cigarettes can be used with nicotine formulas of varying strength.

Nicotine poisoning can cause seizures, convulsions, vomiting and brain injury. The FDA has previously warned of potentially fatal nicotine poisoning in infants and children who accidentally swallowed nicotine solutions.

Seizures usually last a few seconds or minutes and rarely cause permanent injury. But they can be a sign of underlying neurological disorders that need medical attention.

The agency said the handful of seizure reports often lack information about the brand of e-cigarette or whether users had a medical condition that might have contributed. In some cases, e-cigarettes were being used with drugs like marijuana and amphetamines. Some seizures were reported after just a few puffs of the device, others after a day of use.

The FDA is asking consumers to report problems to an online site. The agency is seeking details about vaping brands and models and whether users who have experienced problems were also taking medications, supplements or other drugs.

It’s not the first time the FDA has flagged a potential health hazard with vaping devices—the agency has warned of rare burns and explosions related to overheating of batteries that power the devices.

The latest concern comes amid a nationwide push to fight underage use of e-cigarettes, which have surged in popularity among high school and middle school students. Last month the FDA outlined new restrictions on retail and online sales of most flavored e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, local and state officials are considering age restrictions, taxes and flavor bans to keep the products away from teenagers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.