Judge orders Alabama prison system to beef up staff by 2025


MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) – A federal judge who previously ruled that mental health care in Alabama prisons was “woefully inadequate” on Monday ordered the state to make multiple changes to inmate care and extended the deadline until 2025 for the state to increase the number of correctional officers.

U.S District Judge Myron Thompson delivered a sometimes scathing 600-page opinion that often focused on the prison system’s lack of progress in responding to an earlier directive to increase staff and also the number of suicides that have occurred behind bars. Monday’s order spelled out corrective action and comes after Thompson in 2017 ruled that Alabama’s “horribly inadequate” care for mentally disordered inmates violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“What was true four years ago is no less true today: ADOC does not have enough correctional staff to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to prisoners in need,” wrote Thompson.

“The lack of security personnel prevents people who need treatment from accessing it, prevents those with deteriorating mental health from being caught before they sink into psychosis or suicide, and an environment of danger, anxiety and violence which constantly attacks psychological stability. people with mental illness detained by ADOC, ”he added.

Thompson said staffing had barely increased in three years and the system had filled less than half the positions needed to meet the needs of 3,826 full-time equivalent officers. The judge previously ordered the state to meet staffing targets by February 20, 2022, but wrote on Monday that it had become clear that it was “out of reach.”

Thompson extended the deadline to July 1, 2025 for the state to fill all mandatory and essential positions, but he also ordered the creation of annual benchmarks to measure progress.

He also ordered the state to make many other changes to mental health care, including ensuring that detainees can be out of their cells for a short time, that security checks are carried out regularly, that assessments are carried out properly, that inmates requiring hospital care receive them within a reasonable period of time, and that staff perform regular exercises on how to respond to suicide attempts. Thompson also ordered that before being released from suicide watch, an inmate must undergo a confidential out-of-cell assessment by a mental health professional and then follow-up exams for three days.

Thompson said that in the four years since his initial decision, at least 27 other prisoners have died by suicide, and he described some of the incidents. Thompson wrote that:

– Twelve minutes elapsed between the time a detainee was found hanged in his cell and the start of resuscitation attempts.

– In the seven months leading up to an inmate’s suicide, the man rarely received the required five hours per week outside of his restricted accommodation cell due to staff issues at the prison.

– Prior to his suicide, an inmate suffered “frequent and pervasive sexual and physical violence” and told his mental health care provider that he was “trafficked by gangs and forced to commit acts sex to pay off the gang’s debt ”.

– That the audits found compliance levels below 20% with the required 30-minute security checks in restrictive accommodation. One inmate, Casey Murphree, was not found until hours after his death until rigor mortis began, the judge wrote.

Thompson also ordered the state to tell him how an inmate died of hyperthermia in a temperature-controlled cell in December 2020.

Thompson ordered the court to “explain, in particular, how it happened that Tommy Lee Rutledge’s cell reached 104 degrees, causing him to die of hyperthermia, in a unit that was supposed to be air conditioned, and how the ADOC will prevent this from happening again. . “

Thompson said the state has a “mixed” record in improving the care of inmates with mental disorders. He noted that the state had improved the number of mental health workers.

“The critical question is whether it can sustain this progress, given its severe shortage of correctional personnel, as it implements relief in other areas,” Thompson wrote. He left open the possibility of further action against the state if staffing levels do not improve.

A spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said the department could not respond immediately. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the inmates in the class action lawsuit, did not immediately comment on the decision.

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