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SPLC mourns the death of Sylvester Hartley, plaintiff in lawsuit challenging inadequate health care in Alabama prisons

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Sylvester Hartley, a named plaintiff in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) longstanding Braggs v. Dunn lawsuit challenging the inadequate health care provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections, died this month after testing positive for COVID-19 while incarcerated.

In 2014, the SPLC sued the Alabama Department of Corrections 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. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 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. 

Mr. Hartley was one of 40 named plaintiffs representing the plaintiff class, which includes every person incarcerated in Alabama prisons with serious mental health and medical needs. Mr. Hartley joined the case to advocate on behalf of himself and others like him who were medicated against their will through threats and coercion. The SPLC and its co-counsel, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, Baker Donelson and the Dagney Johnson Law Group, continue to litigate the case to remedy the constitutional violations. 

The following statement is by Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for SPLC:

“We mourn the death of Mr. Hartley, who was an advocate for the rights and dignity of people in Alabama prisons, particularly those with serious mental health and medical issues. To be clear, Mr. Hartley’s death – apparently from complications related to COVID-19 – is at the hands of the state, which has the ability but has utterly failed in its responsibility to protect people in its prisons. Whether that harm is COVID-19, unconscionable levels of violence, or ongoing deaths by suicide, it is violence actively perpetrated by the state of Alabama.

“It is also, without a doubt, racial violence.

“Alabama’s prison system, which disproportionately incarcerates Black people, is a manifestation of Alabama’s history of state-sponsored white supremacy. COVID-19, like so many harms affecting Americans, has disproportionately afflicted Black and brown communities, including those in prison, jail, and detention. The harm is compounded for certain Black people – like Mr. Hartley – who are aging and have underlying medical issues. Advocates have continuously called attention to the large number of people in prison who are especially vulnerable to this pandemic. 

“We condemn the inaction of the Alabama Department of Corrections, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, and Governor Kay Ivey’s administration, all of whom could have taken steps to mitigate this crisis by releasing people from Alabama’s barbaric prisons.

 “In this moment of national reckoning, we again declare that Black lives – including incarcerated Black lives – matter. Mr. Hartley’s life matters. Please join us in grieving with his family and the thousands of others who have lost loved ones to this preventable catastrophe.”