Judge says Alabama failed to protect prisoners from suicide

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — After 15 inmate suicides in 15 months, a federal judge ruled Saturday that Alabama is putting prisoners in danger by failing to provide adequate suicide-prevention measures.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that there are “severe and systemic inadequacies” in the Alabama Department of Corrections’ care of inmates and the facts behind recent suicides show that unconstitutional conditions persist in state prisons.

“It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue,” Thompson wrote at the conclusion on the 210-page opinion.

Thompson credited the Alabama Department of Correction for recently undertaking some “promising” measures, including a directive generally prohibiting the release of inmates from suicide watch directly to isolated segregation units. But the federal judge added that those were “too little, too late.”

A prison system spokesman did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the Saturday order.

The ruling was the latest adverse finding for the Department of Corrections, which has acknowledged its struggles with understaffing and overcrowding. The U.S. Department of Justice last month issued a report that condemned state prisons for excessive violence, inmate deaths and a critical staffing shortage. The Justice Department gave the state 49 days to develop a remedial plan or face a federal lawsuit.

“He found they are failing to do a whole host of really basic suicide prevention procedures and that is putting people’s lives at risk and violating the constitution,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Thompson in 2017 ruled state prisons provided “horrendously inadequate” mental health care. Attorneys for prisoners asked Thompson to intervene again after a rash of suicides in state prisons. Thompson said the facts behind recent suicides “underscores that the constitutional violation remains ongoing.”

Thompson ordered the state to take a number of steps, including enforcing required rounds to check on prisoners in segregation units; immediately initiating life-saving measures on inmates who have attempted suicide; and not placing inmates discharged from suicide watch into a segregation unit unless there are exceptional circumstances.

He also said the system will be monitored for compliance.

In the lengthy opinion, Thompson described some of the facts surrounding recent suicides.

On the night Ross Wolfinger was found hanging in his segregation cell, a corrections officer assigned to conduct security checks every 30 minutes had failed to do a single check and falsified logs to indicating that he had completed the required checks, Thompson wrote.

In another case, Thompson said mental health staff failed to do required follow-up appointments for Paul Ford, an inmate with a history of suicide attempts, after he was released from suicide watch. Ford was later found hanging from his segregation door cell.

Inmate Matt Holmes killed himself about 12 hours after being discharged to a segregation cell even though an evaluation form showed he had a severe mental illness and multiple risk factors, Thompson wrote.

“If the state is successful in implementing the changes that the court has ordered, I think it will help bring down this terrible and tragic rash of suicides that we’ve had in recent months,” Morris said.

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