Federal judge orders monitors in Ala. prison mental health case

The monitoring plan is aimed at making sure the ADOC follows the remedial orders


By Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson on Wednesday approved a plan to monitor how well the Alabama Department of Corrections follows court orders to improve mental health care for inmates.

Thompson ruled in 2017 that the ADOC’s failure to adequately identify and treat inmates with mental illness violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, finding that the level of care was “horrendously inadequate.”

Judge Thompson ruled in 2017 that the ADOC's failure to adequately identify and treat inmates with mental illness violated the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Judge Thompson ruled in 2017 that the ADOC's failure to adequately identify and treat inmates with mental illness violated the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and others who represent inmates.

Thompson’s 2017 ruling listed seven factors as contributing to the inadequate care, plus the overarching problems of overcrowding and understaffing.

Thompson has since issued remedial orders setting standards for how the ADOC can fix some of the problems.

The monitoring plan is aimed at making sure the ADOC follows the remedial orders.

The plan sets up a team of monitors from outside the ADOC who will gradually hand over the reins for monitoring responsibility to an internal monitoring team in the prison system. The monitoring plan is in large part a plan proposed by the ADOC and incorporates areas of agreement between the state and the plaintiffs in the case, the judge wrote.

In the 124-page opinion and order, Thompson wrote that the ADOC agreed that monitoring was needed. But the judge disagreed with the ADOC’s position that it could “voluntarily undertake culture change” without a court order to require monitoring.

Thompson wrote that the state has track record of failure to provide adequate mental health care for inmates when it is not under the force of a court order.

“While the court is encouraged by Commissioner (Jeff) Dunn’s own admission that monitoring is needed ... it shares the plaintiffs’ concerns about allowing the defendants to implement their plan without a court order,” Thompson wrote.

The judge cited cases going back to 1972.

“ADOC’s long history of repeated litigation regarding the inadequacy of its mental-health care is independent evidence of its inability to sustain improvements without the type of oversight ordered today,” Thompson wrote. “This history serves as evidence of why court monitoring is necessary.”

SPLC attorney Ebony Howard said the court order was needed.

“Despite historical intervention and court monitoring, ADOC has failed to permanently uphold its obligation to protect the people incarcerated in Alabama prisons,” Howard said in a press release. “The court’s order requiring long-term external and internal compliance monitoring will hopefully ensure that people with mental health needs will finally receive the humane and just treatment they deserve.”

James Tucker, director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, said the monitoring plan provides important guidance.

“The Court’s opinion gives ADOC a blueprint for providing long-term solutions to long-standing problems,” Tucker said. “ADAP sincerely hopes that going forward ADOC will work to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons and never backslide again.”

Thompson has issued remedial orders on some of the issues related to the mental health care problems, including a severe shortage of correctional officers. The judge has not yet issued remedial orders on all the problems, but said that it was important to have the monitoring plan in place to move the case closer to resolution. The lawsuit was filed in 2014.

“The court hopes that this monitoring scheme will help the ADOC attain timely, meaningful, and sustainable compliance with the court’s remedial orders on mental-health care and bring this litigation to an end as soon as is reasonably possible,” the judge wrote.

The lawsuit is separate from the U.S. Department of Justice allegations that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons violate the Constitution because of violence, excessive use of force by officers on inmates, and other problems. But there are overlapping issues, including the overcrowding and understaffing.

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©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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