Judge: Psychiatric care unconstitutional in Alabama prisons

AP News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2017 12:47 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's psychiatric care of state inmates is "horrendously inadequate" and violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of all current and future Alabama inmates with serious mental health problems.

"Given the severity and urgency of the need for mental-health care explained in this opinion, the proposed relief must be both immediate and long term," Thompson wrote in the 302-page decision.

Gov. Kay Ivey said she would work closely with Corrections Commissioner Jefferson Dunn and state legislative leaders to address the issues raised in the ruling.

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

Lawyers for inmates say they were reviewing the decision and would comment later.

"I can't say this comes as a surprise to anybody. Some of us have been saying for years that this was coming," said state Sen. Cam Ward, who has spearheaded prison reform efforts as well as unsuccessful legislation to build new prisons.

"We as a legislative body are going to deal with the financial consequences," Ward said.

The mental health claims were part of a larger inmate lawsuit filed in 2014 over medical care. The judge presided over a trial that began in December focusing on mental health, and last month, he certified this part as a class action on behalf of all current and future inmates with serious mental illness.

State officials denied providing inadequate mental health treatment, but the judge cited evidence to the contrary from inmates and prison officials. One inmate killed himself days after testifying, prompting the state to agree to new suicide prevention methods while the trial continued.

The judge acknowledged that the department blames lack of funding, but he said money alone couldn't make up for such poor treatment, and sweeping change is required. Alabama's troubled state prison system houses nearly twice the inmates it was designed for. Prison officers and inmates have been killed and injured in a series of violent crimes behind bars.

The litigation echoes lawsuits in states, including California, South Carolina and Arizona, that led to court orders and settlement agreements to improve conditions or reduce crowding.