Prison system, advocacy groups get new deadline for correcting severe mental health issues among inmates

A federal judge finds the lack of mental health care for inmates in the Alabama Department of Corrections so bad, it is a violation of their constitutional rights. Almost two years ago now, Judge Myron Thompson called ADOC's mental health care "cruel and unusual punishment."

Two advocacy groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, sued on behalf of inmates. Now they, along with the department of corrections, must come up with a corrective plan specifically for the care of inmates in solitary confinement.

"When we, as a society, choose to put people into prison, we also have to provide some basic things," Maria Morris, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. "People don't know what's happening with the men and women living in the units."

Judge Thompson filed a 302-page ruling in June 2017 ordering ADOC officials to work with the SPLC and the ADA to correct major issues. Monday, the parties involved in the lawsuit filed a joint report detailing what they will offer to the judge on March 5. They plan to elaborate on remedies for the constitutional violations.

"We've got a very serious crisis on our hands," Morris said.

The average of prison suicides in Alabama is 60 per 100,000 inmates, according to the SPLC. That is around four times the national average.

"They're not doing the kind of security checks that they're supposed to do," Morris said.

As unbelievable as it sounds, things have gotten worse despite the judge putting the Alabama Department of Corrections under a federal court order. We're talking less correctional staff than they had before the judge required them to hire more two years ago.

"They're planning on hiring 500 new officers in the second half of the next fiscal year, so that's April through September of 2020," Morris said. "But, they have to hire over 2,000 correctional officers between now and 2022. So, waiting for another year to get going on that is just waiting too long."

Most inmate suicides are happening in solitary confinement known as segregation. The SPLC says there aren't enough guards and the guards they have aren't watching close enough.

"How many people are going to die because no one is watching the segregation units between now and then?" Morris questioned.

The SPLC announced last week that 13 inmates have committed suicide in Alabama prisons in the last 14 months. That includes six suicides since November 2018.

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