HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The Southern Poverty Law Center, which successfully sued the Alabama Department of Corrections over its treatment of mentally ill inmates, is raising new concerns about the inmate suicide rate.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found in June 2017 that Alabama's treatment of mentally ill inmates was unconstitutional, a violation of the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
There have been 13 suicides in the past 14 months, the group reported Friday.
Maria Morris, supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the suicide rate has grown worse since the federal court ruled for the SPLC.
“Just for context the national average is 16 per 100,000 prisoners, at the time of the liability trial in this case, it was about 37 and right now its 60 per 100,000,” Morris said.
The Alabama Department of Corrections issued the following statement Friday evening:
"As reported by a number of media outlets today, 13 inmates in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections have died by suicide in the past 14 months. While the total number of recent suicides is significant, each suicide within an ADOC facility is a tragic and unfortunate event. Each of these 13 suicides represents a different person who faced individual struggles and challenges that led to their death. Nevertheless, the ADOC investigates every suicide and the circumstances surrounding each suicide to evaluate ways in which the Department can improve its existing suicide prevention program.
"It is important to understand that ADOC’s current suicide prevention program resulted from a remedial plan proposed and promoted by SPLC. In January of 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ordered the ADOC to follow the interim suicide prevention measures as proposed by the SPLC. To comply with this Order, the ADOC increased mental health staffing, reconfigured facilities to accommodate suicidal inmates and revised its policies and procedures – all with the approval of SPLC. As a result of these efforts, the ADOC demonstrated great improvements in suicide prevention in 2017 with only inmate suicide. However, the recent spike in suicides call into question the long-term effectiveness of the suicide prevention proposed by SPLC.
"The recent spike in suicides within ADOC is an on-going concern and will be addressed by the ADOC. On March 8, 2019, an expert retained by the ADOC will issue a report (jointly authored with an SPLC expert) on recommendations on additional suicide prevention measures. Once we receive this report, the ADOC intends to fully implement those measures that will ensure a long-term solution in the prevention of suicides.
“Our department is committed to providing appropriate care for those with mental illness and we have plan to address the conditions inside our prisons that hinder our ability to meet that commitment,” Commissioner Jeff Dunn said. “In addition to increasing our mental health staff, we also are developing a prison revitalization plan that will consolidate the delivery of mental and medical health care in a new state-of-the-art health care facility. More information about the plan will be made public in the coming days. I am focused on solving this problem.”
The SPLC's Morris says the suicide figures have risen as the number of prison guards has fallen. There have been six suicides since late November; at least four have been in segregation units – solitary confinement, used for discipline.
“These are units where people are locked in a very small room, often very dank, very dark, for nearly all day every day,” Morris said.
Prisoners often develop problems after time in segregation, she said, and it can be especially difficult for mentally ill inmates.
“People who have a mental health illness, and who are placed into segregation are particularly susceptible to the kind of deterioration that can often lead to suicide,” Morris said.
Morris says legislators need to pressure state prison officials to do more, including increasing the rate of hiring for new prison guards.
“No one would want their loved one, if their loved one did something wrong, to have to live in the squalor, the violence, the danger and really the hopelessness that is the Alabama prison system.”
The SPLC has filed for a temporary restraining order asking a federal judge to direct the Alabama Department of Corrections to make several changes to address the suicide problem, including how it supervises prisoners in segregation, how it treats inmates on suicide watch.