Inmates’ attorneys say Alabama has prison suicide emergency

Betty Head, choked with emotion, talks about her son, Billy Thornton, who took his own life at Holman Correctional Facility last year. Jerri Ford, whose husband took his own life at Kilby Correctional Facility in January, comforts Head as she tries to speak. (Mike Cason | mcason@al.com
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Lawyers representing state inmates said today the suicide rate in Alabama prisons has risen to a level that constitutes an emergency and that it shows the state is not fixing what a federal judge ruled in 2017 was an unconstitutional lack of mental health care for inmates.

Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center held a news conference this morning in front of the Alabama State House and were joined by grieving family members of inmates who took their own lives in prison in the last year.

The SPLC said 13 inmates have committed suicide in Alabama prisons since December 2017. The latest is Daniel Scott Gentry, 31, who was found hanging in his cell at William Donaldson Correctional Facility on Wednesday.

Those numbers place the suicide rate at four times the national average for prisons, SPLC attorney Maria Morris said. The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program represent inmates in the federal case.

Last month, they asked U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson for an emergency order to block the placement of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness in segregation, or individual cells, because the isolation causes their conditions to worsen and increases the risk of suicide. Thompson cited the risk of isolating mentally ill inmates in his 2017 ruling that mental health care was “horrendously inadequate.”

But Morris said the practice persists and that ADOC needs to immediately take steps to stop it.

“They need to step up and treat this like what it is, a life and death emergency,” Morris said. “ADOC needs to act now to stop this extraordinary loss of life.”

Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years.

SPLC President Richard Cohen said Gov. Kay Ivey and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn have not confronted the problems and criticized the plan under consideration by the Ivey administration to build three new prisons at an expected cost of about $1 billion. 

Former Gov. Robert Bentley also proposed building new prisons in 2016 and 2017, but the Legislature would not grant its approval.

“Now, the governor and her staff behind closed doors are creating a new scheme to get around the wisdom of the people,” Cohen said.

During her inaugural address last month, Ivey said she would make an announcement soon on prison construction.

Today, Cohen called on the Legislature to tackle the prison problems with mental health care, medical care and violence.

“Everyone knows we can’t build our way out of these problems,” Cohen said. “Everyone knows we need to address the acute problems with mental health care, medical care, prison violence and we’re not going to be doing by simply building new prisons that may open sometime in the distant future.”

The governor’s office declined comment on the remarks from the SPLC officials today.

In a statement today, the ADOC said the spike in suicides is an ongoing concern that it will address. Experts retained by the ADOC and the SPLC are scheduled to issue a joint report on suicide prevention recommendations in March, the ADOC said.

Dunn has said replacement of aging, outdated facilities is one component of fixing the state’s prisons, including medical care and mental health care. The ADOC is also asking the Legislature for a $42 million increase in its General Fund appropriation next year, with most of the increase intended to hire 500 additional correctional officers and boost correctional officer pay by 20 percent to help in recruitment and retention.

But the ADOC needs to add more than 2,000 additional officers over the next few years according to the ADOC analysis submitted to the court, the SPLC said.

Dunn said in the statement today that the ADOC is committed to providing appropriate mental health care. 

“In addition to increasing our mental health staff, we also are developing a prison revitalization plan that will consolidate the delivery of mental and medical health care in a new state-of-the-art health care facility,” Dunn said. “More information about the plan will be made public in the coming days. I am focused on solving this problem.”

Jerri Ford joined the lawyers at today’s press conference. Ford’s husband, Paul Ford, hung himself at the Kilby Correctional Facility in January. Ford was in a segregation cell and had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, according to the SPLC. He was serving a sentence of life without parole for a 1995 murder conviction in Talladega County. Ford’s sister, nephew and granddaughter also appeared today.

“He was a very good person,” Jerri Ford said. “He thought a lot of other people. He was not selfish, by no means.”

She said the segregation and limited visitation opportunities took a toll on her husband, as well as she and the rest of the family.

“He got us through as much as we got him through, the situations that we were in,” Jerri Ford said. “Without each other, that’s just how it goes.”

Morris said the state cannot ignore the problem of prison suicides.

“These are our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters,” Morris said. “They’re in our prisons and they suffer hopelessness and desperation and many of them suffer from mental illness. Alabama needs to address this problem and it needs to do it now.”

By Mike Cason | mcason@al.com

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