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Alabama DOC Ordered to Remedy Overcrowded, Understaffed Prisons in Mental Health Suit

by Kevin W. Bliss

A U.S. District Court has ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to come up with an acceptable solution to address deplorable living conditions in the state’s prison system before the federal government steps in and does it for them. Alabama prisons have long been plagued with violence and overcrowding. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.30; June 2017, p.51; Dec. 2015, p.42].

In June 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) filed a class-action suit against the ADOC, claiming the poor level of mental health care provided to prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The lack of treatment and resulting violence was due in large part to systemic overcrowding and understaffing. The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women alone went from 60 percent of open staff positions filled to 35 percent over a six-year period. A report prepared by the ADOC showed a correlation between the decrease of prison staff and increase in prisoner violence.

Under a March 2016 partial settlement in the lawsuit, the ADOC said it would ensure that prisoners with disabilities received services and programs required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.28].

With respect to understaffing, prison officials implemented a three-pronged approach. They said they would step up recruitment efforts through an aggressive ad campaign that used all mediums, from radio and TV ads to social media. They were actively working with the Alabama Department of Labor, employment agencies, and state colleges and universities to promote ADOC career opportunities. Lastly, they were conducting compensation studies to present to the legislature in an effort to raise salaries; however, any wage increases would be contingent on adequate funding from lawmakers.

Trainee prison guards earned around $28,500 per year.

Following a June 2017 bench trial, the district court ordered state prison officials to implement significant reforms with respect to mental health care for prisoners. “[T]he evidence from both sides ... materially supported the plaintiffs’ claim,” the court wrote, adding, “Simply put, ADOC’s mental-health care is horrendously inadequate.”

“This ruling means that prisoners with mental illness may finally get the treatment they have been denied for so long,” said SPLC senior supervising attorney Maria Morris.

The ADOC increased spending on mental health by $5 million in 2018, adding 60 full-time equivalent positions, including 21 suicide watch observers, 18 licensed mental health professionals and one psychologist. Prison officials proposed adding another 125 positions at a cost of $10 million; the legislature recently approved over $80 million in additional funding for the ADOC over a two-year period, which includes $14.5 million in pay raises.

However, the ADOC will need to ensure its medical contractors properly staff the newly-funded positions, which it has failed to do in the past. Prison officials announced in March 2018 that they had entered into a $360 million, 30-month contract with Wexford Health Sources to provide prisoner medical and mental health care.

Governor Kay Ivey stressed that prison construction should be a part of the plan to improve the state’s prison system. The ADOC said the cost of building new facilities would be offset with savings achieved through reduced staffing and overtime due to improved prison design. Additionally, the ADOC plans to convert the Draper Correctional Facility into a vocational and educational center. Prisoners and staff would be reassigned. The Childersburg Work Release Center will be handed over to the Department of Pardons and Paroles, to be used as a transitional center.

The SPLC opposed new prison construction, saying it is more critical to use limited funds to address the constitutional issues with the ADOC’s inadequate medical and mental health care. Currently, the ADOC does not have sufficient staff to properly identify all incoming prisoners with potential mental health problems, and in some cases those who are identified are punished for their disability by being placed in segregation.

Alabama’s prison system went into federal receivership once before, in 1976, and could again if the district court does not like the ADOC’s proposal for correcting the constitutional violations at issue in the class-action suit.

ADOC Commissioner Jefferson S. Dunn stated, “Ultimately, our long-term agenda objective is to improve conditions within the ADOC facilities for the safety and well-being of our employees and those who are placed in the department’s custody.”

In September 2018, an ADOC attorney informed the court that it had stopped releasing reports on prison staffing levels due to “security risks,” shortly after the district court’s June 2017 ruling that found inadequate mental health care in state prisons. In response, an attorney representing the prisoner class members argued the public had a right to know about staffing deficiencies.

Further, the plaintiffs moved to have the ADOC held in contempt for failing to increase mental health staffing; in response, prison officials said they plan to meet the required staffing levels by early 2019. On September 19, 2018 the district court postponed hearings on the contempt motion, pending mediation between the parties.
The lawsuit filed by the SPLC and ADAP remains pending, with the parties preparing to go to trial on the remaining issues in the case as of late December 2018. See: Braggs v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00601-MHT-TFM. 




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Related legal case

Braggs v. Dunn