MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Inmates with mental illness currently incarcerated in Alabama prisons are suing the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC), alleging that mental health care in state facilities is so inadequate that it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The rising rates of suicide led inmates to accuse the department of not doing enough to prevent suicide in the prisons system, according to AL.com.
Department officials, however, agree. Steven Brown, chief of staff for the department, admitted in his testimony that a lack of staffing and space has led to security concerns and made it difficult to provide treatment to inmates with mental illness. In fact, attorneys representing the department plan to present evidence and testimony this week that shows how the $800 million prison construction initiative that failed in the legislature last year affected the DOC’s ability to provide proper care.
Staffing shortages are another reason that the department is incapable of providing the necessary surveillance for suicidal inmates. Brown said in his testimony that the number of correctional officers in Alabama prisons has decreased drastically. For example, Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore once had a staff of 103 correctional officers, which has dropped to 63. Part-time corrections officers and overtime is the only thing filling the gap.
Inmate Jamie Wallace, who testified on the first day of the trial, committed suicide last month, leading U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to order the department to improve its suicide prevention protocols. However, that did not include an increased number of corrections staff, reported AL.com.
Attorneys representing the inmates argued that a prison plan wouldn’t help ease mental health care for inmates for at least three to five years. Even then, no plan has shown exactly how prison construction would improve care, especially since savings from health care are supposed to pay for prison construction, according to AL.com.
As the lawsuit continues, Gov. Robert Bentley and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn plan to revive last year’s proposal to replace the state’s existing prisons with four large ones, reported Montgomery Adviser. As part of the proposal, the state would borrow $800 million to build three, 4,000-bed men’s prisons and replace Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women with a new women’s facility.
The 2017 regular legislative session begins Feb. 7.