On Your Side investigation finds Alabama has spent more than $1.5 million on one prison lawsuit

On Your Side investigation finds Alabama has spent more than $1.5 million on one prison lawsuit
(Beth Shelburne interviewing attorney Bryan Stevenson with Equal Justice Initiative. Source: WBRC)
(Beth Shelburne interviewing attorney Bryan Stevenson with Equal Justice Initiative. Source: WBRC)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WBRC) - The case playing out in a Montgomery courtroom putting mental healthcare of inmates in Alabama on trial is now in it's second week. But that's just one lawsuit Alabama's Department of Corrections (ADOC) is fighting and taxpayers may not realize they foot the bill for this type of litigation.

Another lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at St. Clair Correctional in Springville in 2014 is currently in mediation. That lawsuit argues unprecedented violence calls for emergency action, citing well-documented overcrowding and understaffing, as well as poor security and management.

The Department of Corrections said the case is in mediation to "study the issues of the case and to determine if a resolution can be met as an alternative to litigation."

But the attorney who filed the lawsuit, Bryan Stevenson with Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he's been asking the state to meet for years about issues at this prison in order to avoid litigation.

"We asked the state to just meet with us, let our experts in, see what their recommendations are and if we agree that these things would make the prisons better, let's just do it, rather than spend millions of dollars in litigation," said Stevenson.

"We did not get a positive response from the Department of Corrections to that request, which we've made multiple times," Stevenson said.

In December 2014, two months after the lawsuit was filed, the state hired Birmingham law firm Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis to represent the Department of Corrections in the matter. Representatives with ADOC first submitted a legal services request to Alabama's Contract Review Permanent Legislative Oversight Committee, a bipartisan group of legislators that meets once a month to hear requests for service contracts from state agencies.

The record of the request submitted to the legislative committee justifies the two-year contract by citing "it would not be feasible to handle in-house a case of this magnitude."

The cost on that record is listed as $500,000 at a rate of $205 an hour.

But a search of payments to Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis on open.alabama.gov shows more than $1.5 million has been paid out of the state's general fund budget between March 2015 and November 2016. The Department of Corrections is the agency listed on all of the payments.

According to Alabama's Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, the only legal services contract Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis has ever had with Alabama's Department of Corrections is the contract to handle the lawsuit involving St. Clair Correctional Facility.

We asked the Department of Corrections about the cost to taxpayers and whether ADOC went back before the Legislative Oversight Committee to amend the $500,000 contract submission from 2014. A statement from ADOC general counsel said in part, "As is policy and practice for legal services relating to litigation, there is no limit to duration or cost associated with the contract as these variables are unpredictable."

We also submitted a request for the legal services contract with Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis.

We received two letters that serve as the legal services contract. One letter was from Attorney General Luther Strange with the policy on outside deputy attorney general appointments attached. The other letter was from Governor Robert Bentley's office, establishing the rate for legal services of $205 an hour.

Read the letters here.

Bryan Stevenson said he's hopeful this case can be resolved without a trial and without spending any more general fund dollars on outside attorneys.

"We've offered to resolve these issues without litigation for years and whatever you're spending on attorneys fees is money that you didn't have to spend if you're prepared to recognize these issues," said Stevenson.

"These dollars, I would rather see go into programming, better services for the incarcerated, better pay for correctional officers, better support for the people who are providing services to this population," he added.

We called the Birmingham office of Waller Lasden Dortch and Davis seeking comment. Our call was not returned before this article was published.

A motion seeking class action status in this lawsuit filed in June 2016 alleged that staff at St. Clair Correctional Facility work in fear. Click here to read more about the case.

Copyright 2016 WBRC. All rights reserved.