Court: 'ADOC’s mental-health care is horrendously inadequate'

MONTGOMERY, AL (WBRC) - A long-awaited decision is in, ruling against Alabama's Department of Corrections (ADOC) in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates in state prisons.

The District Court of the United States for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern Division, released its liability opinion and order in the case involving 8th amendment violation claims for Alabama prisoners dealing with serious mental-health needs. Below is a portion of the opinion released that states, "Simply put, ADOC's mental-health care is horrendously inadequate."

In sum, defendants are not immunized from liability arising from ongoing constitutional violations simply because they lack financial resources or the authority to mandate certain specific measures that might remedy the violation. On the contrary, the Ex parte Young doctrine allows this court to find liability and ensure that the prison system provides minimally adequate mental-health care.

For the reasons above, the court holds that the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Associate Commissioner of Health Services, in their official capacities, are violating the Eighth Amendment rights of the plaintiff class and of plaintiff Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program's constituents with serious mental-health needs who are in ADOC custody.

Simply put, ADOC's mental-health care is horrendously inadequate. Based on the abundant evidence presented in support of the Eighth Amendment claim, the court summarizes its factual findings in the following roadmap, identifying the contributing factors to the inadequacies found in ADOC's mental-health care system:

(1) Failing to identify prisoners with serious mental-health needs and to classify their needs properly;

(2) Failing to provide individualized treatment plans to prisoners with serious mental-health needs;

(3) Failing to provide psychotherapy by qualified and properly supervised mental-health staff and with adequate frequency and sound confidentiality;

(4) Providing insufficient out-of-cell time and treatment to those who need residential treatment; and failing to provide hospital-level care to those who need it;

(5) Failing to identify suicide risks adequately and providing inadequate treatment and monitoring to those who are suicidal, engaging in self-harm, or otherwise undergoing a mental-health crisis;

(6) Imposing disciplinary sanctions on mentally ill prisoners for symptoms of their mental illness, and imposing disciplinary sanctions without regard for the impact of sanctions on prisoners' mental health;

(7) Placing seriously mentally ill prisoners in segregation without extenuating circumstances and for prolonged periods of time;97 placing prisoners with serious mental-health needs in segregation without adequate consideration of the impact of segregation on mental health; and providing inadequate treatment and monitoring in segregation.

UPDATE: Governor Kay Ivey said calling a special session of the Alabama legislature to deal with the order is a possibility.

"I am committed to providing justice to all Alabamians by ensuring constitutionally-permissible conditions for all prisoners," said Gov. Ivey.

"There are obviously several issues within our prison system that must be addressed. Over the next few weeks Commissioner Dunn, his staff, and my office will be reviewing Judge Thompson's order.

ADOC released a statement stating Commissioner Jeff Dunn and his staff are reviewing the opinion with legal counsel to determine the next steps for the department.

The statement also states throughout the course of the case, Commissioner Dunn has repeatedly affirmed the department's commitment to necessary mental health services to inmates in state custody.

"This order will require a broader conversation with our state leadership about how we can responsibly address the challenges facing the department," said Dunn.

"While portions of the trial focused upon issues related to mental health care, it also highlighted many of the other challenges facing the department like our outdated facilities and our long-standing needs in the area of security. We look forward to having an open and frank conversation with our state leadership about how to make meaningful investments into our department to ensure the safety of our staff, the security of our facilities and the well-being of those in our care."    

The lawsuit, filed in 2014 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, was split into three phases. This ruling only resolves the phase regarding the claims of constitutionally inadequate mental-heath care. A non-jury trial began in December of 2016 and concluded after almost two months of testimony.

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