Judge Rules ‘Systematic Inadequacies’ Fueled Alabama Prison Suicides, Orders Monitor

A federal judge has determined that the risk of suicide among state prisoners in Alabama “is so severe and imminent” that he ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to immediately implement permanent mental health remedies to address “severe and systematic inadequacies.”

The decision by Judge Myron Thompson on Saturday, comes after 15 prisoners killed themselves in the span of 15 months.

In a 210-page ruling that includes summaries of the circumstances leading to each of the inmate suicides, Thompson agreed with prisoners’ attorneys that the spike had reached crisis levels, a result of what he previously said are “horrendously inadequate” mental health services provided to inmates.

In addition to ordering the Alabama Department of Corrections to comply with a host of court ordered measures he issued in a 2017 ruling, Thompson also required the state to establish an internal monitoring system and said the court will appoint an interim external monitor to oversee the department’s progress.

“The more someone fails to do something he agreed to do, the bigger the need to supervise whether he does it in the future,” Thompson wrote, adding that existing monitoring efforts “have been too little, too late.”

Five of the 15 suicides occurred between January and March this year. In one instance a prisoner with “severe mental illnesses, as well as intellectual and physical disabilities” killed himself 10 days after testifying in court that he had not received adequate treatment, according to the documents. In another, a man hanged himself roughly 12 hours after being transferred from mental health observation to a segregated cell, rather than being placed on suicide watch.

Although ADOC acknowledged in the court documents that persistent and severe correctional understaffing has significantly contributed to its noncompliance, attorneys had argued that prison officials were working on a plan to reduce the rash of suicides.

“The defendants argue that they cannot prevent all suicides in ADOC. It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue,” Thompson wrote.

Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, which represent prisoners in the ongoing case, welcomed the increased oversight.

“The court’s opinion recognizes the urgency of the situation facing ADOC. The system remains grossly understaffed and people are dying as a result,” Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC told Mary Scott Hodgin, reporter for NPR member station WBHM.

“The time has long since come for ADOC to comply with its constitutional obligations, Morris added in a written statement.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice determined the state “routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse,” NPR’s Debbie Elliott reported.

The immediate steps ordered by Thompson were intended to address specific failures by the ADOC. They include adequately-trained personnel for suicide risk assessments; placing people who are suicidal or potentially suicidal on suicide watch; following up with inmates released from suicide watch; and limiting segregated confinement for prisoners released from suicide watch.

Additionally, ADOC must enforce existing policies, including 30-minute check-ins on people in segregation, where most of the suicides occurred, and requiring that staff take immediate life-saving measures when they find an inmate attempting suicide, including immediately cutting down inmates who have hanged themselves.

originally published here

SPLC: ADOC should be held in contempt for missing mental health staffing deadline

 Published 4:40 p.m. CT Dec. 10, 2018

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.”

Reporter Melissa Brown contributed to this report.