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SPLC's Alabama prisons mental health case moves forward

A federal judge ruled yesterday that a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners denied mental health care can head to trial as a class action on behalf of all prisoners, noting that there is evidence of systemic “deliberate indifference” to the mental health needs of the prisoners.

The decision means that mental health care rulings in the case will extend beyond the prisoners named in the lawsuit and benefit the nearly 25,000 people held in a prison system that has had one of the highest mortality rates in the country. The ruling comes as the case is set for trial on Dec. 5.

The suit, filed in 2014, describes how the mental health needs of prisoners are routinely ignored in a prison system where dangerous – even life-threatening – conditions are the norm. The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC (Baker Donelson) and Zarzaur, Mujumdar and Debrosse.

“This ruling is very important for all of the people languishing within Alabama’s prisons without the mental health care they need,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC. “They need help, but many are incapable of standing up for their rights. Prison officials have failed to prevent suicides by prisoners with mental health conditions, they have denied them counseling and simply locked them away.” 

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson’s ruling highlighted that health practitioners have recognized that mental health care is lacking in the prison system.

“When prison mental health administrators know and communicate that they need more staff to provide appropriate care for prisoners, and the Commissioner refuses to provide funding for this staff, not in any exercise of medical judgment but because he does not have the money this suffices to establish deliberate indifference and – in conjunction with a showing that this creates a substantial risk of serious harm– to establish an Eighth Amendment violation,” Thompson wrote.

Lisa Borden, whose law firm Baker Donelson also represents plaintiffs, said: “So many people in Alabama who are in need of mental health care wind up locked away in prison.  The state must learn that it cannot simply lock people up and forget about them, it must be willing to take responsibility for them – including their mental health care needs. The Alabama prison system has failed in this basic constitutional requirement.”

In September 2015, many prisoners called for guards as a man in the segregation unit at Holman Correctional Facility begged for assistance from mental health. The guards did not come. The man hanged himself.

One prisoner in the lawsuit has been in suicide watch nearly 100 times but has not been moved into a mental health unit. Instead, he is in a facility that does not have a psychiatrist. Another prisoner goes between his cell and suicide watch, but rarely gets out of his cell. He receives almost no mental health treatment.

Earlier this year, the SPLC 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 is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. 

“We look forward to proving to the Court how the Alabama prison system has failed to take responsibility for the care of these vulnerable prisoners,” said Morris of the SPLC.