Federal judge holding trial on Ala. prisoner suicides

After 15 suicides in 15 months, a judge will weigh whether the prison system is doing enough to prevent suicides


Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — After 15 inmates killed themselves within 15 months, a federal judge will weigh whether the Alabama prison system is doing enough to prevent suicides.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson on Thursday began a mini-trial on suicide prevention measures. It comes almost two years after his initial 2017 ruling that the Alabama prison system provides "horrendously inadequate" mental health care.

Fifteen inmates have killed themselves since December 2017, according to testimony Thursday.

The testimony included discussions of recent suicides, including an inmate who plaintiffs' attorneys say killed himself 12 hours after being discharged from the infirmary where he was undergoing a mental health observation.

An evaluation form cleared him to return to his cell while also noting he had severe mental illness and three risk factors such as feeling hopeless, having trouble with a significant other and having attempted to harm himself, according to testimony. The inmate was later found hanging in his cell, according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs.

Thompson said that the way the evaluation form was completed was "awful, isn't it?"

"It did have life consequences, did it not?" Thompson asked.

In another suicide discussed in court, officers did not go check on the inmate despite hearing banging from his cell.

Deputy Corrections Commissioner Charles Daniels, a newcomer to the system, testified that he was surprised that the supervisor was not suspended in that incident.

Attorneys for prisoners said the spike in suicides is an "ultra-emergency." They asked Thompson to order changes in how inmates are monitored and evaluated; restrict the use of solitary confinement for inmates with severe mental illnesses; and assign a court monitor to verify compliance.

Alabama prison officials disputed assertions that the system has been "indifferent" to inmates. Attorneys wrote that the state remains committed to suicide prevention and has proposed a comprehensive plan to "ensure that suicidal inmates are identified, referred, monitored in a safe setting, and provided appropriate mental-health care."

"No prison system could possibly prevent every inmate suicide. The state has taken and continues to undertake extensive measures to improve suicide prevention measures," attorneys for the state wrote in a pretrial brief.

Daniels said he is implementing a new policy to prevent inmates from going straight to isolated settings after being in a mental health observation.

Dr. Edward Kern, the prison system's director of psychiatry, said he's implementing multiple changes, such as accompanying mental health workers on rounds to help model best practices during evaluations.

The judge said Thursday that he's worried about possible similarities between one recent suicide and that of inmate Jamie Wallace, who killed himself just 10 days after testifying as the first witness in a 2017 prison mental health care trial. He became a focal point of Thompson's scathing 2017 ruling which said Wallace had been allowed to languish without meaningful care.

"I am concerned about the parallels," Thompson said.

The proceedings are expected to last several days.

Associated Press
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