Mental health care ‘inadequate’ in state prisons, judge says

Published 1:17 am Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A federal judge Tuesday declared the mental health care system in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate” – an unconstitutional failure that has resulted in a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among prisoners.

U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson ordered the state to reform the system and directed them to work with the civil rights groups and others who filed the lawsuit three years ago.

Thompson identified multiple areas where the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has failed to maintain a constitutionally adequate mental health care system – ranging from a failure to identify prisoners with serious mental health needs to inadequate treatment for suicidal prisoners. Thompson’s 302-page ruling comes after a two-month trial that ended in February.

“[T]he evidence from both sides … materially supported the plaintiffs’ claim,” Thompson wrote.

The ruling caps the second of three phases of a lawsuit filed in 2014 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and the law firms Baker Donelson and Zarzaur Mujumdar & Debrosse.

Thompson highlighted a key issue facing the system: “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding.”

The judge noted that during the trial, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn “described the prison system as wrestling with a ‘two-headed monster’: overcrowding and understaffing.”

The judge also noted the ADOC fails to provide individualized treatment plans to prisoners with serious mental-health needs as well as psychotherapy by qualified and properly supervised staff and with adequate frequency and sound confidentiality. He also described a system that disciplines mentally ill prisoners for the symptoms of their illness and segregates them for prolonged periods.

“This ruling means that prisoners with mental illness may finally get the treatment they have been denied for so long,” said Maria Morris, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “The suffering some of these men and women have endured is excruciating and inhumane. We are pleased Judge Thompson has demanded that the state of Alabama meet its constitutional obligation to provide adequate care.”

Thompson noted that the ADOC has long known about problems plaguing the mental-health care it provides to prisoners.

“ADOC officials admitted on the stand that they have done little to nothing to fix problems on the ground, despite their knowledge that those problems may be putting lives at risk,” Thompson wrote.

He noted, “The skyrocketing suicide rate within ADOC in the last two years is a testament to the concrete harm that inadequate mental-health care has already inflicted on mentally ill prisoners.”

In 2016, the plaintiffs settled the first phase of the lawsuit regarding violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In that settlement, the ADOC committed to provide services and fair treatment to incarcerated people with disabilities. The third phase in the lawsuit will determine whether the prison system’s poor medical services violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Gov. Kay Ivey said she may call the legislature into special session to address the issues in Judge Thompson’s ruling.

“For far too long, Alabama prisons have been little more than warehouses where many people struggling with mental illness have been hidden away and abandoned by the state,” said Lisa Borden, an attorney with Baker Donelson. “Once locked behind prison walls, in deplorable conditions with little or no treatment, any hope for improvement or recovery was lost, and many became more profoundly ill. We look forward to now having the opportunity for our clients to receive real treatment for their illnesses, and to seeing them afforded the basic dignity to which any human being is entitled.”