MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s psychiatric care of state inmates is so “horrendously inadequate” that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled Tuesday as he ordered the state to overhaul conditions.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of Alabama inmates who sued the state Department of Corrections in 2014 claiming that untreated conditions and lengthy lockdowns were leading to more symptoms, violence and suicides. Thompson, in a scathing 302-page order, wrote that Alabama had failed to identify and treat prisoners with mental illnesses, provide adequate mental health staff and services, and adequately identify and monitor suicidal inmates.
“The skyrocketing suicide rate within ADOC in the last two years is a testament to the concrete harm that inadequate mental-health care has already inflicted on mentally ill prisoners,” Thompson wrote.
Thompson did not order specific changes but directed the state to meet with inmates’ lawyers to try to work on reforms.
“This ruling means that prisoners with mental illness may finally get the treatment they have been denied for so long,” said inmate lawyer Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.
“The suffering some of these men and women have endured is excruciating and inhumane,” Morris said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the state is studying the decision and will respond.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is get with our attorneys. It’s a lengthy order, contains a lot of information,” Ivey said.
Alabama’s troubled state prison system houses nearly twice the inmates it was designed for. Prison officers and inmates have been killed and injured in a series of violent crimes behind bars.
Thompson in his order noted that severe shortages of mental health and correctional staff, and chronic overcrowding, are “the overarching issues” that lead to inadequate mental health care.
Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the order will require a, “broader conversation with our state leadership about how we can responsibly address the challenges facing the department.”
The judge acknowledged that the department blames lack of funding, but he said money alone couldn’t make up for such poor treatment and sweeping change is required.
An inmate who testified at the opening of the December trial killed himself just weeks after describing a past suicide attempt and how a prison officer once offered him a razor to kill himself. Jamie Wallace, 24, was found hanged in his cell at the Bullock County prison in December.
The litigation echoes lawsuits in states, including California, South Carolina and Arizona, that led to court orders and settlement agreements to improve conditions or reduce crowding.
An Alabama lawmaker said Tuesday that the decision was expected.
“I can’t say this comes as a surprise to anybody. Some of us have been saying for years that this was coming,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, who has spearheaded prison reform efforts as well as unsuccessful legislation to build new prisons to relieve crowding.
Ward said the state will have to spend more money on prisons to comply with the order.
“We as a legislative body are going to have to deal with the financial consequences,” Ward said.