What Life Is Like In Nation’s Most Violent Prison: ‘A Bloodbath’

Holman Penitentiary in southern Alabama has been termed by people within it as “slaughter pen,” and the name comes with good reason. The horrors on a daily basis that occur within the prison, including stabbings, riots, fires, and abuse, have earned the penitentiary a reputation as the most violent in the United States. Just as recently as Thursday, a guard had his eye cut by a prisoner when a fight broke out.

The prison, which sits surrounded by isolation, has been the center of recent prisoner strikes across the nation and is the sole prison where the correctional officers have also gone on strike. The U.S. Department of Justice announced on October 6 that there would be a state-wide investigation commencing in regard to Alabama’s prison for men and the sex abuse, violence, and unsafe conditions that are common there. An investigation like this is unprecedented in the country.

The Guardian shares how Lt. Curt Stidham agreed to meet to share about the conditions within the prison. Although other staff members were afraid to talk, Stidham had left Holman this past summer. He still requested to sit facing the door while at the pizza place where he shared details about the prison.

“I need to be able to see,” he said. “You’ll find all the officers are like this.”

Stidham sketched a layout of the prison and explained the chain of command within. The Guardian notes the shocking numbers when it comes to prisoner vs. guard ratios.

“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.”

How big is the population?

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

The number was confirmed by the department of corrections. The department admitted that the prison suffers from over-population and understaffing. Bob Horton, the spokesman for Alabama’s prisons, shared that this type of problem is one that has been present for decades and that there is no one individual to place blame on.

The statewide investigation will focus on whether or not prisoners are protected from physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and guards, as well as if the living conditions are sanitary and safe overall. The problems at Holman, in particular, started with the “tough-on-crime” laws, as Horton states, which were laws pushed by politicians who didn’t want to look soft, yet could not afford to build more prisons to house the booming number of inmates. Prisoners reportedly arrived “in droves and they stayed longer.”

At this point, Alabama has the nation’s most overcrowded prison system. A system built to hold 13,318 inmates now exceeds 24,000, according to the latest report in August. This has caused a need by prisons to cut corners. In a case where two guards may be required to transport a prisoner, for instance, only one will carry out the task. Another example involves one guard manning a dorm of 115 prisoners. If one prisoner, or a group assaults another prisoner, it is that guard’s job to step in and protect the victim from the assault.

While chatting with the publication, Stidham showed the journalist a collection of prison-made weapons he had collected over his time at Holman.

“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. ‘No one is winning at Holman. There is only survival.’”

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, who once served time himself many years ago, works with prisoners at Holman. He explained the reality of life within the prison’s walls and how the prison has spiraled downward over the years.

“It’s a bloodbath. There are killings every day at Holman. 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.’”

As recently as March, the prison became taken over by prisoners for a short time when inmates rioted and stabbed a guard. When the warden at the time, Carter Davenport, responded, they stabbed him as well. The prisoners then set fire to the dorm and proceeded to patrol hallways while carrying full-length swords. Both the warden and guard survived the attack, and special security squads swept in to control the riot. Just a few days later another riot took over and one inmate stabbed another.

Stidham decided to resign at that point. Just a couple of months later, in September, he received word that officer Kenneth Bettis, 44, had refused an inmate an extra tray of food. The prisoner responded by stabbing Bettis in the temple with a weapon resembling an icepick.

[Featured Image by John Moore/Getty Images]