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Court Orders Changes to Alabama Prison System After 15 Suicides; Feds Threaten Suit

by Scott Grammer

A May 4, 2019 federal district court order in a five-year-old lawsuit over inadequate mental health care and a resultant high suicide rate in Alabama’s prison system was entered “in the wake of 15 inmate suicides in a 15-month period.”

The order stated that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) “continues to fail to provide adequate suicide-prevention measures and, thus, subjects prisoners to a substantial risk of serious harm, including self-harm, continued pain and suffering, and suicide. The risk of suicide is so severe and imminent that the court must redress it immediately. Therefore, the court will grant the plaintiffs’ motion for immediate relief by making permanent most provisions of an interim suicide-prevention agreement that the parties reached early in this litigation; by adopting, in large measure, the recommendations proposed by experts for both parties; and by requiring court monitoring that is limited to the immediate relief ordered here.”

Previously, the district court had approved a partial settlement in the suit on claims related to mental health care and the Americans with Disabilities Act; it awarded $1 million in attorney fees, and later ordered Alabama officials to address problems with overcrowding and understaffing in state prisons. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.16; Nov. 2017, p.28].

According to the court’s May 2019 ruling, “[t]he plaintiffs in this class-action lawsuit include a group of seriously mentally ill state prisoners and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), which represents mentally ill prisoners in Alabama. During the liability trial, and in response to the suicide of class member Jamie Wallace just days after he testified, the parties agreed to a series of interim suicide-prevention measures.... In June 2017, the court issued a liability opinion in which it found that ADOC’s mental-health care for prisoners in its custody was, ‘[s]imply put, ... horrendously inadequate’ and violated the Eighth Amendment.”

The court described the circumstances of all 15 prisoners who killed themselves during the 15-month period mentioned in its order. Those prisoners were Rashaud Morrissette, Matthew Holmes, Daniel Gentry, Paul Ford, Roderick Abrams, Ryan Rust, Kendall Chatter, Mark Araujo, John Barker, Ross Wolfinger, Jeffery Borden, Timothy Chumney, Robert Martinez, Billy Thornton and Ben McClure. The district court found that “[m]any of the inadequacies, detailed in the 15 cases ... are instances of ADOC’s pervasive and substantial noncompliance with the interim agreement and other remedial measures that they agreed to implement.”

On April 2, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice stated in a letter to Governor Kay Ivey that “there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and that these violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights protected by the Eighth Amendment.” The letter went on to warn the governor that the Attorney General “may initiate a lawsuit under CRIPA [Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act] to correct the alleged conditions,” and that “[t]he Attorney General may also move to intervene in related private suits....”

The district court’s May 2019 ruling concluded with a somber statement: “The defendants argue that they cannot prevent all suicides in ADOC. It is truethat, 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.” The case remains pending. See: Braggs v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00601-MHT-WO.

On October 1, 2019, the Alabama News Network reported that ADOC officials were investigating the September 26 death of prisoner Marco Dewayne Tolbert at the William Donaldson Correctional Facility as a suicide, after he was found hanging from a light fixture in his cell. 

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Additional sources: al.com, scribd.com, alabamanews.net

Related legal case

Braggs v. Dunn