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Hearing on ADOC's failure to provide adequate prison staffing begins

A federal court hearing will begin today on the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) plan to address its failure to provide adequate staffing for the mental health care needs of prisoners.

The hearing is the next stage in a lawsuit the SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed three years ago against ADOC to end the deplorable conditions in the state prison system. The evidentiary hearing is expected to last three weeks, and will address ADOC’s proposal to relieve understaffing of both correctional and mental health staff.

Today’s proceedings follow a proposal that ADOC submitted to the federal court last month, claiming that it would increase spending for mental health care workers – and would double staffing in those positions – but only if the state legislature provides enough funding next year.

“We look forward to hearing an ambitious and responsible plan from ADOC that will address the woefully inadequate mental health staffing in ADOC prisons, and will correct the flagrant constitutional violations that leave prisoners who have mental illnesses at risk of serious harm,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC. “There is no excuse for ADOC’s failure to provide the critical care to prisoners with mental illnesses that is mandated by the Constitution.”

The hearing is the latest development in the SPLC’s ongoing litigation against ADOC for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care for people in its custody. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a sweeping, 302-page ruling in June, declaring that the mental health care system in ADOC prisons is “horrendously inadequate.”

In his ruling, Thompson identified several areas where ADOC failed to meet constitutional standards of care, and he found it “alarming” that ADOC had not completed a staffing analysis, even though it had acknowledged staffing shortages and inmate overcrowding. The court also found that “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding” were contributing factors in ADOC’s failure to provide adequate mental health care.

“Judge Thompson identified each mental health care violation in need of a solution,” Morris said. “Those solutions require sweeping, comprehensive changes to the way our system operates.”

Today’s court proceedings mark the first of three evidentiary hearings scheduled over the next several months, seeking to determine how the state will begin to fix constitutional violations in the prison system. The court will also address access to inpatient mental health care and solitary confinement, before turning to medical and dental care.

“Conditions in Alabama prisons have only gotten worse since Judge Thompson’s ruling in June,” Morris said. “ADOC was already shockingly understaffed. But it lost an additional ten percent of its staff this summer. Prisons are populated at 160 percent capacity, and there is no system in place to ensure prisoners receive the care they need. Fixing this decades-long culture of neglect will not be easy, but it will continue to get more difficult every day the state fails to act.

“It is past time to fix Alabama’s bloated and broken prison system. We expect state corrections officials and the Alabama legislature to immediately address the urgent problems at ADOC. Going forward, the only sensible solution is to adopt sentencing reforms and other policies that reduce recidivism, follow the Constitution, and make our communities safer.”