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Federal judge extends deadline until 2025 to address mental health in prisons

The judge’s order states the Alabama Department of Corrections hasn’t adequately addressed a deadly crisis for prisoners with mental health illnesses.

Dramatic clouds behind barbed wire fence on a prison wall STOCK

A federal judge, in a 600-page opinion on Monday, gave the Alabama Department of Corrections until 2025 to boost correctional officer hiring, calling the state’s prisons so understaffed that security checks are lax, prisoners receive little or no time outside of cells and those with mental illnesses continue to commit suicide in alarming numbers. 

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote in his opinion that in the four years since his 2017 ruling, in which he found Alabama prisons were in violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment for those with mental illnesses, at least 27 more men have died by suicide in Alabama prisons. 

“The common thread among these tragedies is ADOC’s lack of correctional staff,” the opinion reads, noting that in the four years since the court issued its previous opinion the staffing shortages remain “nearly unchanged…” 

Thompsons opinion states that because of inadequate prison staffing incarcerated men in Alabama are left to fend for themselves “in the culture of violence, easy access to drugs, and extortion that has taken root in ADOC facilities in the absence of an adequate security presence.” 

Thompsons opinion states that ADOC fails to adequately conduct mental health screenings for incoming prisoners, and even when mental health needs were properly identified “referrals for additional follow-up were routinely ignored, leaving inmates without the treatment they needed.” 

Two men hung themselves in two prisons on back-to-back days in May 2020, and in both instances, ADOC failed numerous times to adequately respond to their mental health needs, the court opinion states. 

Another 32-year-old man hung himself in a stabilization unit at Bullock Correctional Facility on March 2. Such units are designed for those suffering from acute mental health issues, and a court in 2020 ordered ADOC to retrofit those cells to be “suicide-resistant,” Thompson’s opinion reads. 

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ADOC told the court it had done so, but the man hung himself by tying a bed sheet to a ventilation grate above his sink. The grate would have been suicide-resistant, according to the court filing, but it had been broken for a period of time unknown to prison staff, allowing the man to use the grate to help hang himself. 

The opinion states that prior to the man’s death his time in Alabama prisons “was characterized by frequent, pervasive sexual and physical violence” and that he was being trafficked by gang members to pay off a gang’s debt. The man warned prison staff about his suicidal thoughts prior to killing himself, the court record reads. 

The judge noted in his opinion, however, that the court’s order for better-trained prison staff has been heeded by the department, writing that “ADOC has implemented the comprehensive mental-health training, the suicide prevention training, the suicide risk assessment training, and several other training curriculums that it was ordered to conduct, and that current and newly hired staff appear to receive these trainings.” 

Thompson had given the state until Feb. 20, 2022, to employee 3,826 full-time correctional officers, but said in his opinion that that goal is “out of reach.” 

“Overall correctional staffing numbers in ADOC’s system have barely increased in three years, and the system has filled less than half of the positions necessary to meet the requirement of 3,826 full-time-equivalent officers,” Thompson wrote. 

Thompson in his order extended that hiring deadline until July 1, 2025, and will require ADOC to meet yearly benchmarks toward that hiring requirement, but Thompson isn’t setting what those benchmarks will be, he wrote. Instead, he’s requiring ADOC and a court-ordered expert to determine “realistic benchmarks” ADOC must meet by Dec. 31 of 2022, 2023 and 2024, he wrote. 

“These benchmarks should be achievable for ADOC, should appropriately prioritize filling mandatory posts and staffing the mental-health hubs and intake facilities, and should put the ADOC on track to comply with the court’s order to fill all mandatory and essential posts by July 1, 2025,” the opinion states. 

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Addressing ADOC’s inability to meet legal requirements to conduct security checks on prisoners with mental health needs every 30 minutes, and to ensure restrictive cells in which those prisoners live don’t contain implements they can use to kill themselves, Thompson ordered ADOC to make changes, but he stopped short of detailing what those changes should be. 

Thompson wrote that the court considered ordering ADOC to close “some or all the restrictive housing units at its men’s facilities” until staffing improved enough to ensure the department could keep those prisoners safe. 

“However, in deference to ADOC and to ensure that the remedy intrudes no further into the operations of the prison than is necessary to address the risk of harm to inmates in segregation caused by the system’s present staffing levels, the court will instead order that ADOC must take additional precautions to protect against the most severe and immediate dangers to inmates in restrictive housing in the event that ADOC fails to comply with the court’s orders regarding security checks, mental-health evaluations, out-of-cell time, and other areas in which ADOC has failed to provide adequate care,” Thompson wrote. 

“This is not to excuse noncompliance; it is simply to be realistic about the extreme risks that ADOC’s understaffing poses to inmates in restrictive housing,” Thompson continued. 

The court will not dictate all of the additional steps ADOC must take, but instead will allow the department to submit proposals on how to address the concerns, the order reads. 

The court is requiring ADOC to check restrictive housing cells to make certain they are “suicide-resistant” prior to a prisoner being brought in, writing that the requirement is needed because there “will likely be lapses in the observation of inmates in the stabilization unit, suicide watch, and restrictive housing cells.”

During the years since Thompson’s 2017 order, homicides and suicides in Alabama’s understaffed, overpopulated prisms have continued to mount, and 2021 was an especially deadly year in Alabama’s prisons for men. 

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APR received a tip recently that there was a possible homicide at Alabama’s Kilby Correctional Facility and a possible suicide at Staton Correctional Facility, but ADOC staff needed to confirm the deaths, and to comment on the judge’s order, won’t be in office until Monday, Jan. 3, the department responded in a message to APR

“We are reviewing this ruling now but are gratified by the time and care Judge Thompson has put into this issue,” wrote Southern Poverty Law Center spokesman Larry Hannan, in a response to APR on Tuesday. The SPLC represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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