Highlight on Alabama: Class action against state alleges inadequate prison mental health care

Focus on the issue of accessibility to quality mental health care has been growing in recent years, and the state of Alabama is facing intense scrutiny for the possible failure to treat mentally ill inmates. A federal trial began on December 5, 2016, in which dozens of inmates are expected to testify.

This trial is one part of a larger suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2014 alleging that overall, medical care in the state’s prisons is below constitutional standards. Claims that the Department of Corrections (DOC) failed to accommodate prisoners with physical disabilities were previously settled, with the DOC agreeing to improve its facilities.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson granted class action status to the mental health portion of the case in November 2016,  noting that the failure to provide funding for staff creates an Eighth Amendment violation, even if this is caused by a lack of available money.

The claims currently being heard allege that the mental health care, provided through the contractor MHM Correctional Services, fails to provide enough providers to offer care, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses. Additionally, the lack of security staff causes interruptions in care. This results in failing to identify mentally ill inmates and properly diagnose the severity of illness in those who are identified. These issues have led to a failure to prescribe medication, manage side effects, offer adequate counseling, and properly monitor and treat inmates who are suicidal and self harm.

According to a local news report, the first inmate witness had been in prison for six years and is currently at the Donaldson Correctional Facility. He testified that he had physical and mental illnesses and was prone to self harm, but he only sees mental health staff approximately every two months for sessions lasting about five or 10 minutes.

SPLC stated that other expected witnesses include a Dr. Kathryn Burns, a mental health expert who has inspected nine Alabama prisons and their mental health procedures.

This suit is not the only attention Alabama’s prisons are currently receiving. In October 2016, the Department of Justice began a statewide investigation into the conditions in Alabama’s prisons. This investigation is to focus on efforts to protect prisoners from abuse and excessive force at the hands of other prisoners or correctional offers, as well as the provision of sanitary, secure, and safe living conditions.