BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Attorneys with Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order against Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) in light of recent prison suicides. The motion seeks to end the placement of high-risk prisoners in segregation, or solitary confinement, where the majority of suicides have taken place, according to the motion.
The motion comes in the midst of the remedy phase of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates. In 2017, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a ruling that called the mental health treatment in Alabama prisons “horrendously inadequate.” The first inmate plaintiff to testify was Jamie Wallace, who committed suicide 10 days later. The motion claims the situation has become worse, not better since Judge Thompson issued his opinion.
So far in 2019, two prisoners have committed suicide in ADOC custody. Nine prisoners committed suicide in Alabama in 2018. SPLC points out that rate was higher than any previous year and if the trend continues, 2019 will mark the highest suicide rate ADOC has ever recorded.
WBRC reported that Paul Ford committed suicide by hanging himself in a segregation cell at Kilby Prison on January 16, 2019. According to the motion, Ford had previously attempted suicide in April, 2018 at Holman Correctional Facility by setting a fire in his cell and hanging himself, but the noose broke.
Ford was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation, but then brought back to prison where he spent two days on suicide watch, and was then returned to the same segregation cell where he had attempted suicide, which had not been cleaned and still had the noose hanging where he had tied it, according to the motion. Attorneys for Ford wrote that he received no follow-up care outside his cell after his release from suicide watch. He attempted suicide again in July, 2018.
In October, 2018 Ford testified in a hearing about the lack of staff while in segregation at Holman. “He testified the facility was so understaffed that officers would frequently offer persons in segregation a cigarette if they would agree not to take a shower,” attorneys wrote in the motion.
Ford was eventually transferred to Kilby Correctional Facility where he ended his life last week. Despite his previous suicide attempts and diagnosis of a mood disorder, a licensed mental health practitioner indicated during his segregation placement screening that he did not have a serious mental illness, had no history of suicide attempts or behavior and that he did not require a mental health referral or removal from segregation, according to the motion.
“The final trajectory of Mr. Ford’s final months underscores the dire threat of serious harm that isolation poses even to people not previously identified as being mentally ill,” lawyers wrote in the motion.
In addition to ending the practice of placing mentally ill inmates in segregation, the motion seeks more out-of-cell time, visits with counselors and security rounds every 30 minutes in ADOC segregation units.
A spokesperson for ADOC said that attorneys representing ADOC will address the plaintiff’s requests before the court.