New Federal Court Ruling Details ADOC’s “Deliberate Indifference” to Risk of Suicide
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) will be required to immediately take detailed steps to monitor people in segregation in prison and implement other preventive measures to reduce the risk of suicides, according to a U.S. District Court ruling issued over the weekend. Lawyers from ADOC had argued that immediate relief was unnecessary, asserting it would be more “efficient” for the court to wait. The court soundly rejected this this argument.
In a scathing 210-page decision, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered a number of measures, expressing serious concern that ADOC was not adhering to its own policies, even as 15 people died in 15 months by suicide. The suicide rate for Alabama’s prisons was roughly three times the national average for prisons in 2018. The court also ordered a monitor to oversee the orders are properly implemented.
The court ruling reads, “The defendants argue that they cannot prevent all suicides in ADOC. It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue.”
“The court’s order recognized Alabama’s pervasive neglect of people with mental health issues in Alabama’s prisons that need immediate and thorough intervention,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center and lead attorney for Braggs v. Dunn. “While we are satisfied with the court order, it is too late to help the 15 people that have taken their own lives in Alabama’s care. We can only hope this ruling will impress upon ADOC the need to address its failings and immediately take steps to protect the lives of the people in its custody. The time has long since come for ADOC to comply with its constitutional obligations.”
In January, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) asked for immediate intervention to prevent suicides in ADOC after 13 suicides had occurred in Alabama’s prisons since December 2017. Since then, there have been three more suicides in ADOC’s custody. The court’s ruling came after a two-week trial.
“At trial we showed that ADOC is, in effect, deliberately indifferent to its deliberate indifference,” said Anil Mujumdar, attorney with Zarzaur, representing the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP). “That is to say as an institution, they don't care that they don't care. Although many individuals employed with ADOC work hard every day and perform their jobs admirably, the culture of the agency needs to change completely for prison conditions to improve in Alabama.”
“For far too long, our state’s prison officials have failed to provide the most basic of mental health services. They have failed to preserve life,” said James Tucker, executive director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. “The court’s orders make clear that state officials must value the lives of those they are entrusted to serve, and know their actions will be scrutinized by the court and the public.”
This opinion addresses only immediate relief in response to the ongoing pervasive inadequacies in ADOC’s suicide-prevention efforts and does not address solutions that will take longer to implement and will be addressed at a later date.
Judge Thompson has ordered Defendants to take many immediate steps to bring down the risk of suicide, including:
· Having adequately trained people conducting suicide risk assessments for people who are potentially suicidal;
· Placing people who are suicidal, or who are potentially suicidal but have not yet been assessed, on suicide watch;
· Reviewing suicide risk assessments to determine if the personnel conducting them are doing them appropriately;
· Following up with people released from suicide watch;
· Requiring consideration for referral to a mental health unit for people on suicide watch for extended periods;
· Limiting sending people from suicide watch to segregation;
· Enforcing ADOC’s policy of correctional officers doing rounds in segregation every 30 minutes;
· Cutting people down immediately and starting life-saving measures when staff find a person in the process of attempting suicide.
The court also ordered monitoring to ensure compliance with the order.