SPLC files motion to hold Alabama accountable for inadequate health care of all state prisoners

The SPLC, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the law firm of Baker Donelson have asked a federal judge to certify its lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) as a class action, which would allow rulings in the case over the inadequate medical and mental health care of 43 prisoners named in the lawsuit to apply to the 25,000 people held in a prison system that has had one of the highest mortality rates in the country.

The motion for class certification, which argues that the failure to provide adequate care is a systemic issue affecting all prisoners, was filed last night. It comes as the lawsuit is set to go to trial Nov. 7.

The lawsuit describes how the medical and mental health needs of prisoners are routinely ignored in a prison system where dangerous – even life-threatening – conditions are the norm. Strokes, amputations and prisoner deaths that may have been prevented with proper care are detailed in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2014.

“No one in Alabama’s prisons was sentenced to the pain and suffering caused by the state’s utter failure to provide basic medical care,” said Maria Morris, SPLC senior staff attorney. “Alabama is endangering the lives of the people it incarcerates and it must do more to end the inhumane and unconstitutional conditions within its prisons.”

The motion for class certification comes after experts in corrections management as well as medical and mental health care filed reports in the case based on repeated tours of ADOC prisons. The reports, which were filed in July, found that the system, which has the most overcrowded prisons in the nation – and spends one of the lowest amounts, per inmate, on medical and mental health care – is still plagued by serious problems.

“It is quite simply a system in a state of perpetual crisis—a fact known and yet unaddressed by Alabama officials for a considerable period of time,” Eldon Vail, a corrections expert and former secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, wrote in his report on ADOC prisons.

Another expert found that the prison system “has high rates of mortality, but fails to adequately review mortality with an aim of reducing death.” The report by Dr. Michael A. Puisis, a physician with 30 years of experience in corrections, noted that Corizon Inc., the ADOC’s medical care provider, reviews prisoner deaths in a manner that is “ineffective; biased; fails to identify problems; and fails to recommend solutions to problems evident in patient deaths.”

The expert report also describes the failure of the ADOC to control outbreaks of infectious diseases to the point that the Alabama Department of Public Health assumed control of outbreak investigations. It notes that Corizon does not have any positions dedicated to infection control or quality improvement – “two essential programs that need to be present in a correctional medical program.”

These findings come after the lawsuit, which was filed more than two years ago, outlined dangerous and deadly failures by the prison system to provide adequate medical care:

  • The department has a policy and practice of not treating hepatitis C. In April 2014, 2,280 prisoners in ADOC custody had been diagnosed with it, but only seven prisoners were receiving treatment. Many incarcerated people in Alabama have died of complications from hepatitis C.
  • A prisoner who had survived prostate cancer had a blood test indicating his cancer had probably returned, but no follow-up test was given until a year and a half later. By that time, the cancer had spread to his bones and was terminal. He died.
  • A prisoner at St. Clair Correctional Facility with a history of heart problems had a new stent placed in his heart in 2012. Afterward, he was not given the necessary blood thinners at the prison, though the doctor had prescribed them. The prisoner’s blood clogged the stent, requiring emergency open-heart surgery.
  • Severely mentally ill prisoners are housed in solitary confinement where they receive little or no mental health treatment. Numerous prisoners have committed suicide in these dungeon-like cells.

“The state’s failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners in its custody is part and parcel of the horrors inflicted by its use of mass incarceration to cage people rather than attend to their most basic needs,” said Lisa Borden, co-counsel and director of pro bono programs at Baker Donelson. “This is particularly true of the many people in Alabama’s prisons who needed mental health treatment but were incarcerated instead. We regret that a federal lawsuit is necessary to require the state to uphold its constitutional obligations.”

Earlier this year, the plaintiffs settled a portion of the lawsuit regarding violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In that settlement, the ADOC committed to provide services and fair treatment to incarcerated people with disabilities. The remaining claims in the lawsuit describe how the prison system’s poor medical services violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The lawsuit, which is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, will go to trial just before the 2017 regular session of the legislature, which will likely consider a drastic expansion of state prisons, something the SPLC opposes.

“Alabama’s prison system is in crisis,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “The state is not going to solve these problems by going on a spending spree to build new prisons.”