By Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday it was launching an investigation into whether Alabama's prisons for men do an adequate job of protecting prisoners from physical harm and sexual abuse by fellow inmates and correctional officers.

The federal probe follows reports by inmates and local media that male prisoners in Alabama were being subjected to unsanitary and unsafe living conditions, but the department said in a statement it had not yet reached any conclusions about those allegations.

"We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Alabama in ... ensuring that the state’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm,” said Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, in the statement.


Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said in a statement he welcomed the investigation and had already shared with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch an "Alabama Prison Transformation" initiative announced earlier this year.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said in a statement that its commissioner had "identified longstanding problems in Alabama prisons caused by overcrowding, understaffing, and outdated facilities" and pledged to cooperate fully with the federal probe.

Uprisings have broken out at several prisons across the state over the past year, and at least one guard died after being stabbed last month at a facility about 50 miles (80 km) north of Mobile, according to local media reports.

In 2015, the Justice Department reached a settlement with Alabama after finding that the state's Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women subjected its female prisoners to a "pattern and practise of sexual abuse," according to the Justice Department.

The settlement required the prison to launch reforms, but Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, 45, an inmate at Alabama's William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility and founder of the prison-based Free Alabama Movement group, said he thought the Justice Department should have brought charges against state officials.

"No one was held accountable," he said in a phone call on Thursday. "If the state knows that when these investigations are done that it's just another report filed on the shelf, they have no reason to make changes."

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, founder of the faith-based criminal justice reform advocacy group The Ordinary People Society, said he was a member of a group of formerly incarcerated individuals that regularly met with Justice Department officials.

"I've been begging them for 3-1/2 years to come and do an investigation," he said of Thursday's announcement. "I hope they're coming to do the right thing."

(Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Peter Cooney)