Ten months after a federal judge ordered Alabama Department of Corrections to increase its mental health staff numbers, the department may be held in contempt for failure to meet required staffing deadlines.
A contempt hearing regarding the matter is scheduled for Tuesday and is part of an extensive ongoing lawsuit regarding health care within Alabama prisons filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Last year U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson called ADOC’s mental health care “horrendously inadequate” and ruled it violated inmates’ constitutional rights.
A February order required ADOC to fulfill the required mental health staffing level (263.2 full-time equivalents or FTEs) by July 1.
ADOC currently has only 76 percent of the required level (201.1 FTEs).
“They (ADOC) have asked to amend, alter or vacate the order that says they have to reach this number of staff and have asked for specific ways of counting the number of staff they have,” said SPLC senior staff attorney Maria Morris. “We have opposed that. I think there are simple, straightforward ways of counting the number of staff hired, and they proposed this deadline so they should meet it. If they haven’t, they should be held in contempt.”
ADOC did not immediately reply to a request for comment or verification of its mental health staffing numbers.
ADOC Public Information Manager Bob Horton said last week ADOC has increased the department’s mental health staff by 24 percent since April.
The SPLC filed the motion to hold ADOC in contempt for violation of the order one day after it missed the July 1 deadline.
Judge Thompson granted the motion and during a September contempt hearing, ADOC asked for clarification as to what the order required in terms of staffing.
The hearing was then postponed pending mediation between the two sides, and Thompson later clarified that ADOC was required to staff 263.2 FTEs, a number ADOC listed in its 2017 health care provider request-for-proposal as the minimum staffing requirement. That RFP eventually resulted in ADOC contracting with health care service vendor Wexford Health Sources.
At the time of Thompson’s initial ruling last year, 19 percent of Alabama’s inmates were diagnosed with mental illness.
The mental health care concerns being litigated were made real during the trial by the suicide of Jamie Wallace, a mentally ill inmate who committed suicide 10 days after testifying to the lack of care in Alabama prisons in December 2016.
According to court filings, Wallace went on suicide watch five days after his testimony. After his death, plaintiffs’ attorneys said “records produced thus far” showed no counseling was provided to Wallace during or after his time on suicide watch. Wallace was left unattended “most of the day of his death,” according to the filing.
“Without question, Wallace’s testimony and the tragic event that followed darkly draped all the subsequent testimony like a pall,” Thompson wrote in his decision.
In Fiscal Year 2018, which the Alabama Department of Corrections uses to report its data, seven people were killed and six committed suicide. Nearly 40 inmates attempted suicide.
SPLC attorneys have acknowledged that ADOC faces a difficult road to address due to the costs associated with hiring more staff, but Morris said ADOC has no choice but to provide adequate health care in prisons.
“One thing we don’t have a choice about is providing constitutional conditions, and if we want to have the size of prisons system that we currently have, we have to pay more for it,” Morris said. “We have to pay to have more guards and pay to have more mental health staff. If we can’t decide to pay more for it we need to downsize the system because we need the guards and we need the mental health staff.”