Advocacy group: Alabama has prison suicide crisis

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An advocacy group charged Friday that Alabama officials have failed to address a rising suicide rate in state prisons despite a federal court order to improve conditions for mentally ill inmates.

Attorneys representing inmates in an ongoing lawsuit over mental health care argued state officials have done “precious little” to address inmate suicides.

“People are killing themselves in our prisons because conditions are horrendous,” Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen said at a news conference outside the Alabama Statehouse.

The organization said there have been 13 suicides in 14 months, the latest one on Wednesday.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office and the prison system did not immediately react to the allegations. A prison system spokesman said the department was working on a response. However, a state lawmaker said the prison system is working to improve conditions, but cautioned it will take time.

“There is no question the suicide rate is higher than it should be. The data speaks for itself,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs a prison oversight committee.

Alabama Department of Corrections monthly reports list that they were four inmate suicides in fiscal year 2017 and six in 2018. In late December and January, there were three suicides within four weeks in the state prisons.

With their 8-year-old granddaughter beside her, Jerri Ford wiped away tears as she described the loss of her husband, Paul Ford.

“He was our everything, everything and we don’t have him anymore. And it’s not right,” Jerri Ford said.

Paul Ford, 49, was found hanging last month from a bed sheet in his cell at Kilby Correctional Facility. He was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole following a murder conviction. In court filings, the SPLC said, Ford had a prior suicide attempt and spent much of the past year in a restrictive setting or on some form of crisis watch.

Jerri Ford said in the months before his death, she began to worry about her husband’s mental state.

“He was seeing things, hallucinating. … He was scared to go to sleep,” she said.

Inmate lawyers have asked a federal judge to block the state from placing prisoners with serious mental illnesses into segregation units or similar settings, where they said the extreme isolation becomes an incubator for worsening mental health symptoms. The judge responded by asking for the state to provide information on how many inmates are in such settings.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 ruled that mental health care in Alabama prisons was “horrendously inadequate.”

In court filings, the state contends it has added mental health staff and is working to increase the number of corrections officers working in state prisons.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told lawmakers last month that the department is seeking a funding increase to hire 500 additional corrections officers, what he called a “down payment” amid plans to eventually add 2,000 correctional officers

Ivey is expected to announce a proposal soon to replace state prisons, possibly leasing facilities built by private firms.

The SPLC criticized the push for prison construction, saying the plan will be costly when the state faces a staff shortage.

“Jamming thousands of people into some shiny new building will not solve the constitutional violations,” Maria Morris, an attorney with the SPLC, said.