Alabama Prisons Fail to Adequately Prevent Suicides, Judge Rules

by | May 7, 2019 AT 7:17 AM
prisoner uses phone
An inmate uses a phone at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. A federal appeals court has tossed regulation capping the price of some calls to prison inmates, which can cost families thousands of dollars a year. The court said Tuesday, June 13, 2017, that the FCC lacked authority to set rates for the in-state prison calls. The agency does regulate the price of out-of-state calls for prisoners. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

By Mike Cason

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled today that the Alabama prison system fails to adequately prevent inmate suicides and ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to implement specific steps to address what he called "severe and systemic inadequacies."

Thompson's 210-page opinion summarizes the circumstances of 15 men who took their own lives in ADOC prisons over 15 months from late 2017 to this year.

Thompson had cited failure to prevent suicides as one of the issues when he ruled in June 2017 that mental health care in prisons was "horrendously inadequate" and violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

"Now, in addition to the liability findings, the court further finds that the substantial and pervasive deficiencies identified in the 15 recent suicides demonstrate that ADOC's suicide-prevention efforts remain inadequate and continue to contribute to the ongoing Eighth Amendment violation originally found in the liability opinion," Thompson wrote.

Thompson ruled in favor of a motion by attorneys representing inmates who said the rate of suicides in Alabama prisons was an emergency and sought immediate relief. The judge made permanent most provisions in an interim suicide prevention agreement between the parties, adopted recommendations from experts for the ADOC and the plaintiffs, and ordered monitoring by the court.

Thompson wrote that the ADOC demonstrated a "pervasive and substantial noncompliance with the interim agreement and other remedial measures that they agreed to implement."

Lawyers representing state inmates in a federal lawsuit over mental health care say the Alabama Department of Corrections is not doing enough to reduce a suicide rate they say is four times the national average over the last year.

"The defendants argue that they cannot prevent all suicides in ADOC," Thompson wrote in the conclusion to the opinion. "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."

Today's ruling is the latest in a set of legal challenges facing Alabama's understaffed and overcrowded prison system.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that an investigation of men's prisons in Alabama found reasonable cause that the level of violence, sexual abuse, weapons, drugs and extortion created conditions that violated the Constitution.

Today's ruling by Thompson comes after the judge held a trial on the suicide issues in March and April to determine if the court needed to order the ADOC to take specific steps and, if so, what those were.

Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program represent the inmates in the lawsuit.

Lawyers representing mentally ill inmates in a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections are asking a judge to block the placement of certain inmates in segregated cells because of the risk of suicide.

SPLC Attorney Maria Morris said the court found that the ADOC failed to do many basic things essential to preventing suicide.

Morris said the immediate steps ordered by the court include having adequately qualified people doing suicide risk assessments; placing people who are suicidal, or who are potentially suicidal but have not yet been assessed, on suicide watch; providing four follow-ups after release from suicide watch; limits on placing inmates who are released from suicide watch into segregation, where most of the suicides have occurred; enforcing an ADOC policy in having correctional staff do rounds in segregation every 30 minutes; and requiring that ADOC staff take immediate life-saving measures when they find an inmate attempting suicide, including immediately cutting down inmates who have hanged themselves.

(c)2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham