Governor Robert Bentley announced the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or the JRI, on Tuesday in response to an investigation that found Alabama prison systems failing to provide adequate medical care.
The initiative is a comprehensive study of the state's criminal justice system that will identify ways to implement more cost effective policies.
The initiative comes after the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that the prison system is breaking federal law by failing to provide a humane level of medical and psychiatric care, and also subjecting prisoners with disabilities to discriminatory conditions.
In the report that was released on Tuesday, the group shows how the Alabama Department of Corrections and its private contractors are "Deliberately indifferent" to the medical and mental health needs of the state's prisoners.
The report also states that the conditions in the prisons violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" and federal laws that protect people with disabilities.
"When a person is sentenced to prison, they are not stripped of their humanity and they are not sentenced to the pain, agony or death that can result from the lack of health care," said Maria Morris, the report's lead author and managing attorney of the SPLC's Montgomery legal office. "Whenever Alabama determines a person must be incarcerated, it must accept the legal, and moral, responsibility that comes from imprisoning a human being."
This report was based off of the inspections of 15 prisons across the state, interviews with more than 100 prisoners and a review of over a thousand pages of medical records, depositions and media accounts as well as the policies, contracts and reports of the ADOC and two major contractors.
Numerous examples of conditions that threatened the health and lives of prisoners were found through the investigation.
One example was a prisoner, who had survived prostate cancer, had a blood test done which indicated that the cancer probably had returned. There were no follow-up tests given until a year and a half later at which point the cancer had spread to his bones and was terminal. The prisoner died less than a year later.
Another instance involved a prisoner, who was undergoing dialysis, dying after he was given an injection of a substance that sent him into cardiac arrest in Jan. 2014. Even though a cart, stocked with emergency medical equipment, was present in the dialysis unit, no one present knew how to operate the equipment.
A different prisoner has been incarcerated for eight years after being shot in the groin, and was told at the time of the shooting that he would have a catheter and a colostomy bag for six months before having surgery to repair the damage. Eight years later, the prisoner has still not had the surgery and says he is in constant pain.
There are numerous reported prisoners who have had toes, feet and even portions of legs amputated due to poor diabetes care. Some diabetic prisoners reported that they have not had their blood sugar measured in months.
The investigation also revealed that the prison system is severely understaffed. Reports show that as of March, the ADOC had 25,055 prisoners in in-house custody, and only the equivalent of 15.2 full-time doctors and 12.4 full-time dentists to treat the prisoners. That comes out to about 1,648 patients per doctor and more than 2,000 patients per dentist according to the report.
The investigation also found that numerous prisoners have been placed under "do not resuscitate" or "allow natural death" orders without the consent or knowledge by the prisoners. Psychiatric medication is often changed or even stopped without discussion between the psychiatrist and patient.
The ADOC also leaves prisoners with disabilities isolated, unable to participate in prison programs and deprived of medical care they need which is a violation of federal law.
"Many prisoners suffer daily humiliation and hardship simply because they have a disability, and some are needlessly placed in life-threatening situations," said Bill Van Der Pol, ADAP counsel. "These conditions are clearly illegal and must be remedied to comply with the law."
The full report can be found on the Southern Poverty Law Center's website.
The Council of State Governments will lead Alabama's effort with the JRI process.