Temporary Agreement Reached on New Suicide Prevention Measures in Alabama Prisons

barbed wire and a prison watch tower

by Andy Jones
January 22, 2017

A federal judge signed off January 12 on an agreement between the Alabama Department of Corrections and disability advocates to prevent suicides in Alabama’s prisons, amid ongoing litigation concerning the system’s treatment of its inmates.

The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against the state DOC in 2014, alleging a plethora of Americans with Disabilities Act violations and deficient medical and mental health services that the advocates argue constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.

The parties settled the ADA portion of the lawsuit in May 2016. Last month, the parties held a week-long trial on the medical and mental health issues. 

Jamie Wallace, a 28-year-old inmate serving a 25-year sentence, testified December 5. He described how a prison officer had offered him a razor to kill himself, and how he had tried to hang himself, according to the Associated Press.

On December 15, Wallace hanged himself, just two days after being discharged from suicide watch. During the prior five years, he had been placed on suicide watch more than 60 times.
 
Following Wallace’s death, the parties negotiated an emergency 15-point plan [PDF] to prevent similar tragedies. The agreement requires the DOC to ensure that each of its facilities is equipped with a licensed mental health worker. Buildings with specialized mental health units must have two mental health workers.

Prison staff must maintain “constant watch” over inmates who are either “acutely suicidal” or “nonacutely suicidal,” and assess them at least three times upon discharge from suicide watch. It must also submit monthly reports to the plaintiffs and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, which retains oversight over the litigation.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it is not a permanent fix,” said Maria Morris, SPLC senior supervising attorney, in a news release. “It will get us through the next 60 days, but the Alabama Department of Corrections needs to create a meaningful, long-term plan to address these issues, which is one of the reasons we originally filed this lawsuit.”

Attorneys from Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC and Zarzaur, Mujumdar and Debrosse are also assisting the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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.