The Alabama Department of Corrections could be held in more legal peril for failing to meet multiple deadlines for required mental health staffing in Alabama prisons.
ADOC officials are appearing Tuesday at a contempt hearing before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson. The hearing, which comes nearly 10 months after Thompson ordered ADOC to increase mental health staffing numbers, is the latest development in an ongoing lawsuit over health care in prisons.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the lawsuit, is asking the court to rule on whether ADOC should be held in contempt for failing to fill mental health care staff positions and failing to inform the court of their inability to meet its requirements.
“Prisoners with mental illness in the ADOC continue to receive constitutionally inadequate care,” SPLC attorneys said in a notice of non-compliance when they asked for a hearing earlier this year. “Increasing the amount of mental-health staff is a necessary part of bringing an end to the constitutional violations found a year ago.”
The contempt hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. in Montgomery. An initial hearing was held in September but was delayed for mediation after ADOC requested clarification over what the order requires for staffing. The SPLC is again asking that ADOC be held in contempt.
Federal Judge Myron Thompson said in his ruling last year that ADOC’s mental health care system was “horrendously inadequate” and ordered broad changes. The ruling said ADOC failed to provide constitutional health care.
The contempt hearing comes months after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a $360 million contract between the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Pittsburgh-based prison health care provider Wexford Health on March 9 of this year.
The health care provider was hired, in large part, to fulfill the state’s requirements under Thompson’s order, but since their hiring, the number of full-time mental health staff has not increased.
Before the contract was finalized, the Legislature approved a $30 million supplement to the Department of Corrections’ funding for last fiscal year — an increase legislators said at the time was needed to comply with the court decision that mandated changes to medical and mental health care in Alabam’s prisons.
ADOC received more than a 20 percent increase to its budget over the next year with the $30 million in additional emergency funding to ADOC’s budget last fiscal year combined with this year’s General Fund.
In its ruling last year, the court found that “persistent and severe shortages” of mental health care staff contributed to the prison system’s constitutional violations.
In February, the court ordered ADOC to fulfill the required level of mental health staffing, which means 263.2 full-time equivalents, or FTEs, by July 1. So far, ADOC has only reached 76 percent of the required levels, or 201 FTEs, according to court filings. Thompson cited that number, which was included in the request-for-proposals that led to ADOC contracting with Wexford Health.
The number of current full-time mental health staff working in Alabama prisons is no higher than March of this year, when ADOC reported 202.6 full-time mental health staff, and far below the 263 full-time equivalents the court ordered the state to hire.
If the court rules ADOC should be held in contempt, parties could face fines and, in some cases, jail time. The SPLC asked that a monitor be appointed to oversee how ADOC is progressing and to keep the Court and the Plaintiffs informed.
ADOC, in a motion filed last month, asked the court to clarify the order requiring that the department hire at least 263.2 full-time equivalents through alterations or amendments because it cannot comply with the order as written.
The department has also asked for a different way to count the number of staff it has.
The contract between ADOC and Wexford defines staffing requirement in terms of hours of service, not full-time positions filled, which is how the court’s order defines it.
“In short, the State cannot practically ensure staffing ‘consistent’ with the Agreement while at the same time insisting that Wexford fulfill the different terms of the Court’s Modified Staffing Remedial Order,” the state said.
The state requested in their motion that the definition of compliance be changed to FTEs hours of service provided instead of defining it in terms of FTE positions filled.
“This revision would permit Wexford to cover the hours of ‘unfilled positions’ with locums, PRN, or overtime work and still be in compliance with the Agreement and the Court’s order,” the state wrote.
In their filing, ADOC said it isn’t clear whether the order would permit the state and Wexford to receive credit for individuals working overtime, individuals working on a temporary or as-needed basis or FTEs taking paid or unpaid leave, which could lead to discrepancies between “FTEs filled” and “FTEs provided.”
“These fundamental inconsistencies between the Court’s Modified Staffing Remedial Order and the Agreement render the State and Wexford unable to comply with the Modified Staffing Remedial Order,” the state said in their motion.
“The State and Wexford, however, remain committed to complying with this Court’s orders and fulfilling their constitutional obligations to provide adequate mental-health services to inmates in ADOC’s custody,” the motion reads.