Alabama prison system sees steep rise in suicides

The SPLC argued in federal court today that Alabama’s mistreatment of prisoners with mental illness has led to a dramatic increase in suicides.

Since the beginning of 2018, four people in ADOC custody – three in solitary confinement and one on death row – have died by suicide. The suicide rate in Alabama prisons is one of the highest in the country.

In June 2017, U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson declared the mental health system in Alabama prisons “horrendously inadequate,” an unconstitutional failure that led to what Thompson called a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among prisoners.

Thompson’s ruling followed a two-month trial in the SPLC’s lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). Today’s hearing was about ADOC’s routine use of segregation – solitary confinement – for prisoners with mental illness.

“As far as we can tell, the state has done very little beyond promising to improve conditions in Alabama prisons,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “We continue to see the mentally ill kept in extreme isolation, and this is driving a steep rise in suicides.

“Even more disturbing, the suicide rate has dramatically increased since we filed this lawsuit in 2014. ADOC has been ordered to increase mental health and correctional officer staffing, and, hopefully, will do so over the coming years. However, the level of correctional staffing has fallen significantly since the start of the lawsuit. Last summer, as the situation become increasingly dire, the state stopped publicly reporting its staffing levels. ADOC has refused to provide information about its mental health staffing levels, but the information we’ve received suggests that it has fallen this year.

“It’s sickening to witness people – many of whom have mental illnesses – endure so much suffering while the state stalls and makes excuses. Incredibly, at the same time more people under its care are taking their lives, ADOC is asking the court and the people of this state to trust it to provide the care the U.S. Constitution requires.

“For well over a year, ADOC has ignored the urgent need to protect people with serious mental illnesses from the detrimental effects of extreme isolation. Segregation can be deadly, especially for those who are already struggling, and the recent rise in prison suicides highlights this tragic reality.”

In 2016, the plaintiffs settled the first phase of the lawsuit regarding violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In that settlement, ADOC committed to providing services and fair treatment to incarcerated people with disabilities.

The third phase of the lawsuit will determine whether the prison system’s poor medical and dental services violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Trial dates for those claims have not been set.

The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the law firms Baker Donelson, and Zarzaur Mujumdar & Debrosse filed the lawsuit against ADOC in conjunction with the SPLC.