Federal judge finds Alabama prison system is violating Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment

MONTGOMERY, Ala. —  A federal judge says top Alabama Department of Corrections officials are violating the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued the ruling today in the class action lawsuit brought on behalf of mentally ill inmates.

In the conclusion of a 300-page opinion, Thompson wrote:

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

The judge’s findings included the system’s failure to provide risk assessment for suicidal inmates, segregation of mentally ill inmates which led to further injury and a failure to respond to the widespread problems in the system. He also found the mental health services contractor MHM Correctional Services did not do enough to identify and address problems.

“ADOC’s Office of Health Services, run by Associate Commissioner Ruth Naglich, has done vanishingly little to exercise oversight of the provision of care to mentally ill prisoners,” the judge wrote. “This failure exemplifies ADOC’s disregard of the substantial risk of serious harm to mentally ill prisoners within ADOC. Two facts provide important context for understanding this failure: first, ADOC has been well aware of the inadequacies in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners discussed above; second, as explained in this section, ADOC has known that MHM’s own quality-control process is hopelessly inadequate in implementing corrective actions.”

The court didn’t issue a final ruling today, but said the court and the parties will meet to discuss a remedy. Thompson wrote, “… given the severity and urgency of the need for mental-health care explained in this opinion, the proposed relief must be both immediate and long term.”

The court found that the prison system’s mental health services were “consistently and significantly understaffed since 2013,” and that it is still understaffed even after a staffing increase was approved in 2016.

The judge cited testimony from top Alabama Department of Corrections officials who said overcrowded conditions and understaffing were major contributors to their inability to provide adequate mental health care.

Alabama has an unusually low number of inmates identified as mentally ill compared to other states, the judge found. He said it is not because the problems don’t exist, but rather what could be thousands of inmates are not identified at intake, or referrals for evaluation or treatment are ignored.

Thompson’s order described an especially harrowing encounter with one mentally fragile inmate who testified before the court.

The inmate described his experience, inadequate care and his multiple suicide attempts. Thompson wrote the inmate was so distressed that his testimony had to be completed in the quiet of the judge’s chambers library and they had to “coax his testimony as if he were a fearful child.”

The court then noted that the inmate, Jamie Wallace, killed himself by hanging 10 days after his testimony.

“The case of Jamie Wallace is powerful evidence of the real, concrete, and terribly permanent harms that woefully inadequate mental-health care inflicts on mentally ill prisoners in Alabama,” the judge wrote. “Without systemic changes that address these pervasive and grave deficiencies, mentally ill prisoners in ADOC, whose symptoms are no less real than Wallace’s, will continue to suffer.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement in response to the judge’s ruling and said a Special Session of the Alabama Legislature will be considered.

“There are obviously several issues within our prison system that must be addressed. Over the next few weeks Commissioner Dunn, his staff, and my office will be reviewing Judge Thompson’s order.

“I am committed to providing justice to all Alabamians by ensuring constitutionally-permissible conditions for all prisoners,” Ivey said. “I will be working closely with Commissioner Dunn and the leadership in the House and Senate to address the issues raised in today’s order.

“All appropriate options at my disposal, including the possibility of a special session, will be considered as potential remedies to address the judge’s order.”