Alabama prison system, Southern Poverty Law Center divided on how to address inmate suicide problem

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Friday marked a deadline for experts working with the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Southern Poverty Law Center to submit a report analyzing suicides in Alabama prisons and ways to address the problem.

The joint effort stems from a lawsuit where a federal judge found in 2017 that Alabama’s treatment of mentally ill inmates violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The SPLC said the issue of inmate suicide needs urgent attention. Thirteen inmates in the state prison system have committed suicide in the past 15 months, state figures show.

Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the expert report will address a number of issues but isn’t designed to provide immediate relief.

Morris has argued the DOC needs to be doing more now to monitor mentally inmates who are in “segregation” – solitary confinement – units.

However, the DOC has pushed back in recent court filings, both on the shorter term suicide proposals and on a number of other proposed remedies to address mental health problems in the state prisons.

In a court filing Thursday, attorneys for the DOC argued the court and the plaintiffs don’t have enough expertise to weigh in, in detail, on how the prison system should handle the problems, including the frequency of prison guard checks on segregation unit inmates.

“As with any prison system, ADOC is dealing with finite resources,” the filing argued. “It does not have unlimited capacity to add unproven, speculative tasks onto an already strained system. Additionally, Court-imposed obligations will unfortunately, but predictably, impact ADOC’s ability to ensure the safety and security of inmates and correctional, medical, and mental health staff.”

Morris said the DOC’s shift away from working jointly on proposed mental health remedies likely means the two sides are headed to a taxpayer-funded trial over what remedies will be enforced by court order.

“What this will mean, is that the time and money spent over the last seven or eight months, trying to reach all of these agreements, that the parties all agreed were enforceable, was largely wasted,” she said.

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