After Inmate Suicides, Alabama Prisons On Trial

By Richard Gonzales and published here

A fence stands at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., seen in 2015. A federal judge ruled that mental health care for inmates is "horrendously inadequate."
A fence stands at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., seen in 2015. A federal judge ruled that mental health care for inmates is “horrendously inadequate.”
Brynn Anderson/AP

A federal judge in Montgomery is again hearing arguments over efforts to stop a wave on inmate suicides in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prison system

U.S District Judge Myron Thompson is hearing testimony on whether the state has adequately responded to 15 suicide deaths in the past 15 months.

The state’s liability for those suicides and others has been the subject of a protracted legal battle dating back to June 2014. A lawsuit challenging the conditions and treatment of mentally ill inmates was initially filed against Alabama prison authorities by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. It has since been amended.

Attorneys for Alabama said prison officials have a plan for reducing inmate suicides. Inmates’ lawyers argued that the steady pace of suicides indicates that the state’s proposed reforms need monitoring.

The trial is expected to last several days, according to The Associated Press.

“Prisoners with serious mental illnesses were routinely housed in solitary confinement and provided with little to no mental health care,” according to a case summary on the SPLC’s website. “The Alabama Department of Corrections has the highest suicide rate in the nation, with most such deaths occurring in solitary confinement and solitary-like units. In ADOC prisons, there have been over 200 suicide attempts requiring hospitalization between the filing of the case and January 2019, and there have been 31 completed suicides.”

In June 2017, Judge Thompson ruled that Alabama’s prison system had violated inmates’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 302-page ruling, Thompson found that persistent staff shortages and chronic inmate overcrowding permeated the system. Among other systemic deficiencies, the judge found that the Alabama Department of Corrections:

  • Failed to identify prisoners with serious mental health needs and properly classify their needs;
  • Failed to set up individualized treatment plans;
  • Failed to provide qualified and properly supervised mental-health staff;
  • Failed to identify and treat inmates at risk of suicide;
  • Placed seriously mentally ill inmates in seclusion without considering the impact of those circumstances.

“Simply put, ADOC’s mental-health care is horrendously inadequate,” Thompson concluded.

In an editorial, ADOC Commissioner Jefferson Dunn said overcrowding and understaffing are a “two-headed monster” that hinders reform. He also said Alabama will borrow $800 million to build four new prison facilities.

SPLC: Alabama prisons must address staffing needs and accept monitoring of failing mental health treatment

article published 10/20/2017 & originally posted here

An Alabama Prison
An Alabama Prison

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) must conduct a meaningful analysis of the staffing it needs to address an unconstitutionally inadequate level of care for prisoners who have mental illnesses, according to a brief filed in federal court yesterday by the SPLC.

ADOC will likely need more than double its current level of correctional staffing and nearly triple its mental health staffing, according to the brief. Additionally, the court should appoint security and mental health monitors to ensure that ADOC is carrying out the court-approved remedies, the brief states.

The filing is in response to a plan that ADOC proposed to the federal court last week, claiming that it would increase spending for mental health care workers – and would double staffing in those positions – but only if the state legislature provides enough funding next year.

“Compliance with the U.S. Constitution is not optional, and the state can delay no longer. Mental health staffing is woefully inadequate in ADOC prisons, and the flagrant constitutional violations that result must be addressed immediately in order to protect prisoners with mental illnesses from an ongoing risk of serious harm,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC. “ADOC’s plan to remedy these glaring staffing deficiencies is vague, unsubstantiated and incomplete. It must address these issues now.”

The filing is the latest development in the SPLC’s ongoing litigation against ADOC for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care for people in its custody. U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson issued a sweeping, 302-page ruling in June declaring the mental health care system in Alabama prisons “horrendously inadequate.”

The court specifically found that “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff” are among the overarching issues that contribute to the inadequacy of mental health care in ADOC prisons.

The court also found that ADOC’s mental health caseload is substantially lower than the national average, and that this failure to identify prisoners with mental health needs is the result of a number of factors, including “insufficient mental-health staffing.”

Recruiting and retaining adequate staff will take time and funding, but ADOC already has the authority and funding to hire some correctional staff right now. For example, ADOC does not need legislative approval to fill its existing, authorized staffing levels.

“Throughout this case, the court has repeatedly made it clear that lack of funds is not an excuse for ADOC’s failure to provide constitutionally mandated care to prisoners with mental illnesses,” Morris said. “ADOC officials have known for years that they need more staff, but they have delayed addressing the problem. Now, they want to delay even further, leading to more pain, suffering and possibly even death.”

Morris said: “The state has an immediate duty to hire enough qualified staff to address the crisis in care for the mentally ill. Over the long term, however, the only solution to this and other problems in the Alabama prison system is to decrease the prison population by getting people the help they need to stay out of prison in the first place. The state should ensure that people with mental illness get treatment, instead of just locking them up and throwing away the key.”

 

Attorneys say Alabama prison plan inadequate, vague

The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s plan to improve correctional and mental health staffing in state prisons is vague and inadequate, attorneys for inmates told a federal judge last week.

The attorneys for inmates criticized the state’s proposal submitted to U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.

“Commissioner Jefferson Dunn and Associate Commissioner Ruth Naglich appear not to recognize that they have been found to be running a correctional system that provides horrendously inadequate mental health care,” wrote Maria Morris, an attorney representing the inmates.

Thompson ordered Alabama to overhaul conditions in June after finding that psychiatric care of state inmates is so “horrendously inadequate” that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. One of the inmates committed suicide days after testifying in federal court about his treatment in prison.

Thompson ordered the state to submit a plan to address shortages of correctional and mental health staff.

The Department of Corrections told the judge in a filing this month that it was increasing staff and conducting a comprehensive analysis to determine security staffing needs, and had begun some of those steps before Thompson’s ruling.

Inmates’ attorneys argued the state should have deadlines for increasing staff and benchmarks for caseloads or the plan “will remain nothing more than words.”

Thompson scheduled an Oct. 30 hearing on plaintiffs’ request for additional information about the state’s plan.