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Families of 4 Alabama Prisoners Who Committed Suicide File Federal Lawsuit Against Prison Officials

Billy Lee Thornton, Ryan Rust, Matthew Holmes, and Paul Ford were DOC prisoners suffering from severe mental illness who were incarcerated in segregation cells prior to their suicides. During their incarceration, mental-health care for DOC prisoners was provided by MHM and Wexford (after mid-2018).

Prior to the four suicides, an Alabama federal court issued a remedial order and opinion in a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center over conditions in the DOC, calling the provision of mental health services “simply put ... horrendously inadequate” and in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Briggs v. Dunn, 257 F.Supp.3d 1171 (M.D. Ala. June 27, 2017).

With the assistance of Montgomery attorney Joseph Mitchell McGuire of McGuire & Associates and Chicago, Illinois attorneys Nicolette A. Ward and Antonio Romanucci of Romanucci & Baldwin, the families of the four prisoners filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the DOC ignored the remedial court order and allowed understaffing, overcrowding, and the use of untrained and unlicensed mental health care providers to effectively deny the prisoners in isolation mental-health care.

“The Alabama corrections officials named as defendants along with the mental healthcare providers even failed to comply with remedial mental health procedures to which they consented and agreed to have memorialized in federal court orders,” McGuire said. “The defendants can no longer rely on excuses such as staffing shortages and poor administrative discipline. They must now be held accountable for the deaths of humans who suffered so greatly from the state’s failure to provide adequate mental health care, that suicide appeared to them to be the only option. Meanwhile, these state defendants effectively stood idle—indifferent to the mental health needs of these desperate inmates—and over and over again, suicide was indeed the tragic result.”

According to court documents, the DOC is overcrowded at 175% of design capacity and understaffed by as much as 68% at some prisons. MHM and Wexford mental health care staff also was understaffed despite the 25% increase in the mental health caseload between 2008 and 2016. Further, DOC officials denied requests to increase the number of approved mental health care positions.

As of September 2016, the DOC had only half of its security positions filled. This resulted in the cancellation of mental health appointments and group activities—especially for segregation prisoners. Further, a lack of proper training led to many prisoners with serious mental illness being improperly classified as not mentally ill during intake, leading to them being segregated and disciplined.

All four prisoners had histories of serious mental illness and multiple suicide attempts. None were given treatment prior to their successful suicide attempts. One can only hope this lawsuit helps prevent further tragedies. See: Head v. Dunn, Case No. 2:20-cv-00132-SMD, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.). 


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Related legal case

Head v. Dunn