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Federal Judge Orders External Monitoring of Mental Health Care in Alabama Prisons

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Noting decades of inadequate mental health care provided to people incarcerated in Alabama prisons, a federal judge has adopted a plan to monitor the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (ADOC) compliance in addressing its unconstitutional mental health services.

The 124-page order was issued late Wednesday in the longstanding Braggs v. Dunn case challenging mental health conditions in Alabama’s prisons, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), Baker Donelson, and the Dagney Johnson Law Group. The order calls for outside experts to monitor ADOC’s compliance with the court’s previous orders to remedy issues including chronic understaffing and suicide prevention. The order details a hybrid monitoring scheme in which the external team will train ADOC staff, who will eventually be tasked with internal compliance monitoring.

“ADOC’s long history of repeated litigation regarding the inadequacy of its mental-health care is independent evidence of its inability to sustain improvements without the type of oversight ordered today,” U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in the order. “This history serves as evidence of why court monitoring is necessary.” 

In the order, Thompson notes that as early as 1972, ADOC’s mental health care was found to be constitutionally inadequate. After 16 years of court oversight, it was determined that ADOC had remedied its care and court supervision was terminated in 1988. Four years later, the prison system was sued again for inadequate mental health care.

“People in Alabama prisons have been languishing for far too long at the hands of state officials,” said Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for Criminal Justice Reform at the SPLC. “Despite historical intervention and court monitoring, ADOC has failed to permanently uphold its obligation to protect the people incarcerated in Alabama prisons. The court’s order requiring long-term external and internal compliance monitoring will hopefully ensure that people with mental health needs will finally receive the humane and just treatment they deserve.” 

In 2014, the SPLC and its co-counsel sued ADOC for systemically putting the health and lives of incarcerated people at risk by ignoring their medical and mental health needs and discriminating against those with disabilities. In 2017, Thompson declared the mental health care system in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate” – an unconstitutional failure that has resulted in a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among those who are incarcerated. Since then, Thompson has ordered a number of corrective measures. The SPLC, ADAP, Baker Donelson, and the Dagney Johnson Law Group, continue to litigate the case to remedy additional constitutional violations. 

“The Court’s opinion gives ADOC a blueprint for providing long-term solutions to long-standing problems,” said James Tucker, director of ADAP. “ADAP sincerely hopes that going forward ADOC will work to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons and never backslide again.” 

Attorneys in the case are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 14 for a virtual hearing to determine whether existing orders and agreements in the lawsuit are in compliance with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limits the scope of relief that can be ordered by a federal court in a conditions lawsuit.