Judge: Alabama’s Treatment of Inmates with Mental Illness is Cruel and Unusual Punishment

bars of a jail cell

by Andy Jones
July 6, 2017

In a 302-page ruling issued June 27, a federal district court found that the state of Alabama’s mental health care for inmates is “horrendously inadequate” and systematically violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Starting in December 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama held a two-month trial, addressing numerous concerns raised by disability rights advocates.

One of the plaintiffs’ witnesses, James Wallace, died by suicide in his cell by hanging mid-trial, 10 days after testifying. Despite multiple previous suicide attempts, the Alabama Department of Corrections nonetheless was holding Wallace in solitary confinement, often for days without any monitoring or contact with prison officials.

“The case of Jamie Wallace is powerful evidence of the real, concrete, and terribly permanent harms that woefully inadequate mental-health care inflicts on mentally ill prisoners in Alabama,” Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in the ruling. “Without systemic changes that address these pervasive and grave deficiencies, mentally ill prisoners in ADOC, whose symptoms are no less real than Wallace’s, will continue to suffer.”

In the decision, the Court chastised the system’s screening processing, finding that it regularly fails to identify and classify people with serious mental health needs, or provide them individualized treatment plans. It further determined that these inmates do not receive adequate psychotherapy services from qualified staff, appropriate out-of-cell time, suicide prevention monitoring, among other essential services and protections.

Moreover inmates are regularly disciplined for actions arising from their disabilities and segregated in isolated units, exacerbating their symptoms.

The ruling addresses just one part of the class-action lawsuit [PDF] filed by the Alabama Disability Advocates Program and the Southern Poverty Law Center in late 2014. The parties previously settled the portion regarding concerns with the prisons’ accessibility for inmates with physical disabilities [PDF]. Litigation is still pending on separate claims regarding medical and health care in the facilities.

In light of the Court’s negotiation, the parties will reconvene for settlement discussions.

“This ruling highlights the fundamental truth that once the State chooses to incarcerate a person with a diagnosis of a serious mental illness, ADOC must provide adequate care to that person,” ADAP Executive Director James Tucke said in a news release [PDF]. “ADAP is, and remains, focused on ensuring constitutionally adequate care for all inmates in the ADOC who have a serious mental health issue.”

The full opinion can be read here [PDF].

Disability Rights Washington and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Washington and Alabama, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.