By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - Severe understaffing in Alabama's prisons has contributed to at least three inmate deaths this year and has led to inadequate medical care, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment, two civil rights groups said in a report released on Tuesday.
In some cases, inmates were unwittingly placed under "do not resuscitate" orders, said the report, which was co-authored by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. (Report: http://r.reuters.com/dek99v)
Diabetic inmates sometimes waited months before having their blood sugar levels taken, resulting, in some cases, in inmates having their toes and feet amputated as a result of inadequate care, it said.
The report, which was based in part on more than 100 prisoner interviews and a review of medical records, concluded the problems stem primarily from severe understaffing and efforts to cut costs when awarding medical services contracts.
The state employs 15.2 doctors - based on full and part-time workers - to care for over 25,000 inmates, the report said.
"Whenever Alabama determines a person must be incarcerated, it must accept the legal – and moral – responsibility that comes from imprisoning a human being,” said Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the report’s lead author.
Also on Tuesday, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley announced plans to convene a study to recommend ways to increase public safety and reduce overcrowding in the state's prisons, which he said houses inmates more cheaply than any other in the United States.
A spokeswoman for Bentley said the announcement was unrelated to the report.
Bentley said in a statement that he had not yet read the report but is committed to improving overall conditions in the state's prisons, including easing overcrowding, in a cost-effective manner.
"We are making fundamental and significant changes to our prison system, and I am committed to continue those efforts,” Bentley said.
The report found that one inmate died in January after not receiving follow-up tests when initial ones indicated his prostate cancer had returned.
A second patient died that same month after his heart stopped while he was undergoing dialysis and with no one present to use the emergency medical equipment at hand, the report said.
A third inmate died in May when he was kept writhing in the infirmary for two days after a bad reaction of unknown origin, Morris said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Edith Honan and Lisa Shumaker)