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Three Alabama inmate suicides within a month underscore mental health issue in state prisons

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There is a suicide problem in Alabama's state prisons, and the Alabama Department of Corrections and the federal courts knows about it. It's not a new problem.

The state of Alabama has been mandated by a federal judge to make critical changes in its mental health care practices. However, with three inmate suicides in the past month, there's still a lot of work to be done.

The issue with inmate suicide, and inadequate mental health care in prisons, came to a head in June 2017 when US Judge Myron Thompson called mental health care in Alabama's prisons 'horrendously inadequate.' Included in the 300-page lawsuit brought by the SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, Judge Thompson said the department of corrections is violating inmates' rights guaranteed by the constitution.

The judge directed ADOC to work with the southern poverty law center to find a solution.

"We're at the beginning of a long process," Maria Morris, Senior Supervising Attorney at the SPLC said. "The system was completely failing."

Three inmates have died by suicide in the Alabama Department of Corrections' care within a month, according to their reports. The judge stressed in his order that inmates who are suicidal need extra attention.

"Alabama had eight suicides in the department of corrections last year," Morris said. "Alabama has about 20,000 people in its prisons which means the suicide rate of 40 per 100,000. According to the last numbers that were published nationally for how many people are committing suicide in prison, the average for the country was 16 per hundred thousand and we're at 40."

ADOC said in an email to WHNT News 19, the agency has increased their mental health staff by 24% since April. The SPLC said it's just not enough.

"They're supposed to already have reached 263 full-time positions for mental health care," Morris explained. "They were supposed to reach that in July and they're now at, last time I saw, 201."

Both the SPLC and ADOC agree, there's a huge hole that needs filling regarding correctional staff. ADOC says they're trying through 'aggressive recruiting' and paying officers more. Although ADOC is filling more mental health positions, the SPLC said they are having trouble hiring more highly skilled positions, like psychiatrists and nurse practitioners.

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