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Judge orders Alabama to protect suicidal prisoners after SPLC action

A federal judge on Thursday entered an order requiring the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to immediately take actions to protect suicidal prisoners – an order sparked by the SPLC after a client died by suicide in a prison cell days after testifying in court about the state’s failure to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners.

The order – a 15-point plan to better care for suicidal inmates in ADOC custody during the ongoing federal trial over mental health care in Alabama’s prisons – was developed between the SPLC and the defendants, including the ADOC commissioner. The motion noted that prisoners were at “substantial risk of profoundly irreparable harm” due to inadequacies of suicide watch in the state’s prisons.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it is not a permanent fix,” said Maria Morris, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “It will get us through the next 60 days, but the Alabama Department of Corrections needs to create a meaningful, long-term plan to address these issues, which is one of the reasons we originally filed this lawsuit.”

The order requires the department’s mental health program to hire new, more qualified, staff, implement a “constant watch” system for inmates on suicide watch and ensure that each inmate is examined at least three times after a stint on suicide watch. The ADOC will report the number of people on suicide watch to the court and the plaintiffs, including the SPLC.

Discharge procedures for inmates set to leave suicide watch also figure prominently in the order. Wallace, the 24-year-old inmate who testified in the trial on Dec. 5, 2016, and died by suicide at Bullock Correctional Facility 10 days later, was discharged from suicide watch only two days before his death. He had been placed on suicide watch more than 60 times during his five years in prison.

“Jamie Wallace’s suicide tragically demonstrates that prisoners on suicide watch cannot wait for the verdict in this trial,” Morris said. “They need these new protections now.”

Another point in the order addresses a problem identified by expert witnesses during their trial testimony: the monitoring of inmates on suicide watch at regular intervals. Witnesses brought to the stand by the SPLC have testified that doing suicide watch rounds at regular, 15-minute intervals – as Alabama prison guards sometimes do – allows inmates time to plan and carry out a suicide. The new order mandates that the ADOC monitor these inmates at staggered intervals.

U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson, who is presiding over the trial in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, issued the order and will determine whether the ADOC has shown “deliberate indifference” to the mental health needs of inmates. The trial, which began last month, is expected to last until late January or early February.

The lawsuit, 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 SPLC, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC; and Zarzaur, Mujumdar and Debrosse.

The state settled a portion of the lawsuit regarding violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in early 2016. In that settlement, the ADOC committed to provide services and fair treatment to incarcerated people with disabilities. A trial over the lawsuit’s claims regarding medical care of prisoners is expected to start later this year.