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Continued Problems with Mental Health Care, Suicides in Alabama DOC

by Kevin W. Bliss

Counting 13 suicides among Alabama state prisoners within a 14-month period ending in early February 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has accused the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) of not complying with a federal court order mandating improvements in mental health care. The SPLC said the DOC’s suicide rate – which is almost four times the national average – had grown to a level that constituted an emergency, and asked the federal court to enjoin prison officials from placing mentally ill prisoners in segregation, where the majority of the suicides occurred.

U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson ruled in 2017 that the DOC’s mental health care was “horrendously inadequate” and ordered improvements. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.16]. But the DOC’s suicide rate of 60 per 100,000 prisoners is not only nearly quadruple the national average of 17 per 100,000, it’s also almost double the rate of 37 per 100,000 when the litigation began. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.30].

The SPLC pointed to overuse of segregation – solitary confinement, a frequent result of DOC staffing shortages – as a major factor in the spike, claiming in its court filings that Alabama prisoners with severe mental illnesses spent 167 days in segregation, on average, between February 1, 2017 and January 31, 2018. 

“People need people,” said SPLC supervising attorney Maria Morris. “They rarely get to leave a small cell where they have just a few feet to walk around in. The cells are dank and dark. Some of them don’t have windows. Some have feces smeared on the walls that don’t get cleaned.... When people are in conditions like that, they lose their sense of self. They lose their ability to understand how to act, how to be.”

“Our department is committed to providing appropriate care for those with mental illness, and we have plans to address the conditions inside our prisons that hinder our ability to meet that commitment,” said DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, who added that prevention measures proposed by the SPLC in its lawsuit were not effective in the long term.

In a March 2019 filing, DOC attorneys argued that the SPLC lacked sufficient expertise for the court to consider its recommendations, such as the frequency of cell checks for prisoners in segregation. “As with any prison system, DOC is dealing with finite resources,” their filing stated. “It does not have unlimited capacity to add unproven, speculative tasks onto an already strained system.”

But the SPLC accused prison officials of failing to follow their own policies related to suicide prevention, which include cell checks.

Governor Kay Ivey looked at the possibility of leasing facilities from private prison companies to relieve overcrowding in the DOC before announcing in February 2019 that the state would break ground on a trio of new prisons, one of which will be dedicated to prisoners with special needs, including mental health problems. The facilities will replace aging state prisons rather than increase DOC capacity, and it’s possible they will be built with financing from private prison firms.

Morris noted that “jamming thousands of people into some shiny new building will not solve the constitutional violations.” 

Paul Ford was an Alabama prisoner with a history of mental health problems. While at the Holman Correctional Facility, he attempted suicide by hanging and setting his cell on fire. The noose broke and Ford fell, striking his head. He was placed on suicide watch for two days before being returned to his segregation cell where, incredibly, the sheet was still hanging. 

After a second suicide attempt, Ford was transferred to the Kilby Correctional Facility but was not flagged as having a serious mental illness. He died at the prison when he hanged himself on January 17, 2019.

“They need to step up and treat this like what it is, a life and death emergency,” said Morris. “DOC needs to act now to stop this extraordinary loss of life.”

Since the SPLC filed its motions with the district court, a 14th Alabama prisoner committed suicide. Matthew Blake Holmes, 28, was found dead on Valentine’s Day 2019 at the Limestone Correctional Facility, where he was serving 22 years for robbery convictions. His death was ruled a suicide, according to DOC spokesman Bob Horton.

“People who have a mental health illness, and who are placed into segregation are particularly susceptible to the kind of deterioration that can often lead to suicide,” said Morris, who called on state lawmakers to fund more staff positions to reduce reliance on segregation to maintain order in state prisons.

“No one would want their loved one, if their loved one did something wrong, to have to live in the squalor, the violence, the danger and really the hopelessness that is the Alabama prison system,” Morris declared.

The SPLC’s emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to require the DOC to improve its suicide prevention and segregation policies remains pending. The court began holding hearings on the motion on March 29, 2019.

“No prison system could possibly prevent every inmate suicide,” DOC attorneys wrote in a pre-hearing brief. “The state has taken and continues to undertake extensive measures to improve suicide prevention measures.” 



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