Alabama’s prison system back on trial this week

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Alabama’s prison system is back on trial this week.

The trial marks the latest stage in a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed in 2014 against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to end the poor conditions in the state prison system, including the understaffing of both correctional and mental health workers.

According to the SPLC, the state has yet to come up with an acceptable remedy to address the “horrendously inadequate” and unconstitutional mental health care and staffing needs of the ADOC.

The SPLC will argue just that in its closing arguments scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 3 p.m. They follow weeks of testimony outlining ADOC’s plans to increase mental health and correctional officer staffing, raise personnel pay, and enhance outreach to potential new hires.

Alabama legislators have requested $80 million over the next year and a half to address the issues plaguing the ADOC. But according to the SPLC, that amount does not address the current shortfalls, nor does it take into consideration decades of inadequate funding.

“As Gov. Kay Ivey and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn have both recognized, the constitutional violations of how the state treats prisoners developed over a generation. It will be difficult, and likely costly, to fix them. But ADOC has to fix them,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC, and lead litigator in the case.

“ADOC needs to be fast, creative and aggressive in figuring out how to come into compliance with the Constitution,” Morris added. “The recent budget request for ADOC covers little more than the expected increase in the system’s health care costs, and does nothing to address correctional staff shortages or the unconstitutional level of care.”

Responding to the federal lawsuit in June 2017, the U.S. District Court issued a 302-page ruling declaring that Alabama’s prison system has failed to provide mental health care to the state’s prison population and is in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Given the severity and urgency of the need for mental-health care explained in this opinion, the proposed relief must be both immediate and long term,”U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote in his decision.

State officials denied providing inadequate mental health treatment, but the judge cited evidence to the contrary from inmates and prison officials. One inmate killed himself days after testifying, prompting the state to agree to new suicide prevention methods while the trial continued. The judge acknowledged that the department blames lack of funding, but said money alone couldn’t make up for such poor treatment, and sweeping change is required.

Alabama’s 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.