Donaldson Correctional Facility
The William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility is a maximum-security prison facility operated by the Alabama Department of Corrections and located near the Warrior River, west of Port Birmingham in western Jefferson County. It is named for Bill Donaldson, a prison guard who was stabbed to death by an inmate on January 12, 1990. The warden is Gary Hetzel.
The prison was constructed in 1982 as the West Jefferson Correctional Facility with dormitories for 700 minimum and medium-security inmates. The addition of a 300-inmate segregation unit along with other expansion projects have brought the total inmate capacity to 1,492. As of January 2009 the actual inmate population is 1,545, of which about a third are serving life sentences without parole. Donaldson can house up to 24 death row inmates whose appeals are being brought in the Birmingham judicial area. They are transfered to the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore for execution.
In 2002, at the suggestion of cultural anthropologist and researcher Jenny Phillips, and with the support of Alabama Department of Corrections treatment director Ron Cavanaugh, Donaldson became the first North American prison to implement a program of meditation promulgated by the Vipassana Meditation Rehabilitation and Research Trust. In the program, a group of volunteers from the inmate population and prison staff spend 10 days together in the gymnasium, largely in silent meditation. They are served vegetarian meals and share communal bathing and toilet facilities. The program is aimed at nurturing self-reflection and peace of mind and thereby reducing violent activity in the prison and criminal recidivism for parolees. Though designed to be secular, Vipassana uses Indian techniques taught in Buddhism. The program was suspended due to complaints about its semblance of religion, but was reinstated and expanded in 2006 due to its demonstrated effectiveness with prisoners behavior. The program was the subject of Phillips' 2007 documentary film "The Dhamma Brothers".
Around 2005, it was reported that the prison was routinely violating restrictions on the amount of sewage it released into Big Branch Creek, a tributary of the Warrior River. Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed suit under the federal Clean Water Act, but that filing was quickly superseded by charges from the Alabama Attorney General, which had the effect of protecting the Department of Corrections from civil damages. After negotiations, the prison contracted with Alabama Utility Services to upgrade and operate their treatment facilities.
In February 2009, the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta filed a federal lawsuit against Donaldson. The suit claims overcrowding that results in three inmates "crammed into cells that were designed for two," ceiling leaks when it rains and overflowing toilets that "back up into adjoining cells." The suit names Governor Bob Riley, Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen and warden Hetzel as defendants. The Alabama Correctional Organization, an employees group for correctional officers, supports the lawsuit.
- Joiner, Whitney (September 13, 2007) "Staring at Death, and Finding Their Bliss" The New York Times
- Gordon, Tom (February 26, 2009) "Lawsuit alleges violence, chaos and corruption at west Jefferson prison." Birmingham News
- Gordon, Tom (January 12, 2010) "Alabama prison officials pay tribute to slain corrections officer on 20th anniversary of his death." Birmingham News
- Elliott, Debbie (February 8, 2011) "At End-Of-The Line Prison, An Unlikely Escape" National Public Radio