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Despite court directive, Alabama still segregates seriously mentally ill prisoners

Alabama had at least 152 prisoners with a “serious mental illness” in solitary confinement on two randomly chosen days in December 2017 and January 2018, violating a judge’s directive last summer for the state prison system to move seriously mentally ill people out of segregation “as soon as possible.”

After testimony by Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Associate Commissioner Ruth Naglich, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson on Wednesday ordered ADOC to act on 21 prisoners who are categorized as having a “serious mental illness,” who may currently be in solitary confinement, and who have spent a significant amount of time in solitary, by either moving them out of confinement or explaining why they have not done so by 5 p.m. Friday.

The violation was revealed during the first day of a trial to address how ADOC will rectify its unconstitutional use of solitary confinement.

“For over a year, Alabama’s Department of Corrections has ignored the urgent need to protect people with serious mental illness from placement in solitary confinement,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC, and lead litigator in the case. “We know segregation can be deadly, especially to those already struggling. The revelation that there are more than 100 prisoners in segregation who have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses shows that the state has not changed its practices, fails to consider the impact of segregation on peoples’ mental health, and does not properly monitor or treat those in its care.”

The trial marks the latest stage in a lawsuit the SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed in 2014 against ADOC to end the deplorable conditions in the state prison system, including the understaffing of both correctional and mental health workers.

In June 2017, the U.S. District Court issued a 302-page ruling declaring that Alabama’s prison system was in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment for failing to provide mental health care to the state’s prison population. In his ruling, Thompson wrote, “the evidence is overwhelming that the ADOC’s current segregation practices pose an unacceptability high risk of serious harm to prisoners with serious mental health needs.”

There is overwhelming evidence that long-term solitary confinement has a profound impact on prisoners’ mental health due to the harmful effects of isolation, and that it is worse for those who already suffer from a “serious mental illness.” Experts agree that the risk of mental deterioration increases with the duration of isolation and the severity of the prisoner’s mental illness.

The solitary confinement hearing is expected to last two weeks, and marks the second of eight evidentiary hearings to determine how the state will address the unconstitutional prison conditions that the court found.