Alabama prison system ordered to report mental health segregation data

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On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued an order for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to report how many inmates with mental illnesses have been placed in segregation units, The Associated Press reports. This comes when attorneys for inmates requested intervention after three suicides occurred in four weeks in state prisons.

Thompson previously instructed state prisons not to isolate prisoners without extenuating circumstances after finding in 2017 that care for mentally ill inmates was “horrendously inadequate.”

History of mental health issues in Alabama prisons

The issue of mental health care in state prisons has been ongoing. In December 2018, Alabama prison officials stated that they were making “substantial progress” in increasing mental health staff and asked not to be held in contempt of court of an order requiring minimum levels of mental health staff. In a December filing, the ADOC wrote that Wexford Health Sources, the contractor hired to provide health care, had not been able to meet staffing targets but said “both are making all efforts to increase staffing as quickly as possible.”

The letter continued, “In sum, the state is not contending that it has fulfilled every requirement of the staffing remedial order. But it has made in good faith all reasonable efforts to do so, and those efforts have resulted in substantial progress.” They claimed that a shortage of professionals available, especially in rural areas, has made staffing difficult.

Lawyers for the inmates wrote “Defendants’ contempt is placing prisoners with serious mental-health needs at a substantial risk of serious harm every day. Their failures are most evident when looking at staffing levels for mental-health staff with advanced training, specifically psychiatrists, CRNPs, psychologists, and registered nurses.”

In September of 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center asked Judge Thompson to hold the ADOC in contempt. “Adequate staffing is critical to address the mental health needs and secure the safety of the prisoners in ADOC’s care,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC. “Time and time again, ADOC has failed to meet court-ordered deadlines to fill essential staffing positions. We have no confidence that ADOC is doing all it can to hire enough staff to care for prisoners with mental illnesses. We are asking the court to rule ADOC in contempt for continuing to fail to meet these court-ordered deadlines.”

This came after a warden testified in February 2018 after a mentally ill prisoner committed suicide.