The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program urged a federal court today to block an Alabama Department of Corrections practice that allows male prisoners virtually unlimited access to razor blades in state prisons – including prisoners with a history of mental illness and suicide attempts.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) urged a federal court today to block an Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) practice that allows male prisoners virtually unlimited access to razor blades in state prisons – including prisoners with a history of mental illness and suicide attempts.
The groups filed a motion for preliminary injunction to stop this practice that puts the lives of prisoners at risk, violating their constitutional rights. It describes how this routine continued even after a prisoner killed himself with a razor in 2011. It also notes that this procedure fails to track the number of blades prisoners possess, allowing razors to be found throughout ADOC prisons.
“The Alabama Department of Corrections is endangering its prisoners with this policy,” said Maria Morris, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Montgomery legal office. “It should be obvious that you don’t freely hand out razors to prisoners suffering from suicidal thoughts and mental health crises. This policy is irresponsible and a danger to anyone within the walls of these prisons.”
Even after a prisoner at Limestone Correctional Facility killed himself with a razor on Jan. 21, 2011, the ADOC continued the policy. The motion describes how in early 2014, Joshua Dunn, a prisoner at St. Clair Correctional Facility with an extensive history of self-harm with a razor, used a razor to cut his forearm, severing a tendon. After his wound was closed with 12 staples at a hospital, Dunn was returned to prison and allowed to have razors while under suicide watch.
A prisoner who is responsible for distributing razor blades to prisoners in segregation at St. Clair has previously attempted suicide with razors approximately eight times. This prisoner has virtually unlimited access to razors as a “runner” handing out blades.
At Ventress Correctional Facility, a box of razors is simply left open for prisoners to take any number of blades they need.
“The Alabama Department of Corrections is clearly failing to protect the most vulnerable prisoners in their custody,” said William Van Der Pol Jr., ADAP staff attorney. “We are simply asking state prison officials to control razors in the prisons and keep razors out of the hands of prisoners suffering from suicidal thoughts and mental illness.”
The groups urged ADOC officials to change the policy in April. Despite a subsequent meeting and assurances from officials, there has been little action taken by the ADOC. After reviewing material related to the issue, corrections expert Eldon Vail found that “there has not been sufficient change in practice to protect the prisoners from the misuse of razor blades.”
Vail, the former secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, stated in court documents filed with the motion that the ADOC’s policy “is not a complex problem and given the documented incidents of self-harm in the Plaintiffs’ complaint, should be treated as an emergency and be corrected in a matter of weeks, not months.”
The ADOC appears capable of instituting a safer razor policy. Vail noted that at Tutwiler Prison for Women, a prisoner with a history of cutting herself reported that she must turn in her old razor to receive a new one. Women in segregation are not allowed to keep razors in their cells. They are given razors when they enter the shower and must return them afterward.
The motion filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama is part of a lawsuit the groups filed against the ADOC in June. It alleges that the Alabama Department of Corrections puts the health and lives of prisoners at risk by ignoring their medical and mental health needs and discriminating against prisoners with disabilities.