Judge orders mentally ill Ala. inmates removed from solitary confinement
The order follows the judge's ruling last year that mental health care for Alabama state prisoners was "horrendously inadequate"
By Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson on Wednesday ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to take new steps to keep inmates with serious mental illness from long stretches in solitary confinement.
The order follows Thompson's ruling last year that mental health care for Alabama state prisoners was "horrendously inadequate" and is part of that ongoing case.
One of the judge's findings in that 302-page opinion in June 2017 was that DOC put mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, also called segregation, for long periods even though it is widely known that the isolation is harmful to mental health. Thompson also found that mentally ill inmates received inadequate treatment and monitoring in segregation to prevent suicides and other risks.
Last year's ruling came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. Since the ruling, the parties have mediated and argued the merits of the state's proposed solutions in hearings and court documents.
Thompson held a hearing on Wednesday and received evidence that DOC has held about 20 inmates with serious mental illness in segregation for periods of more than 30 days during the last year.
Thompson directed DOC officials to confirm by Friday at 5 p.m. that they have removed those inmates from segregation or to explain why they have not. The inmates were identified on a list presented at Wednesday's hearing.
Thompson wrote that the list was incomplete and based on a limited sample.
"However, given the urgency of this issue, the court opts to act now upon this initial sample," Thompson wrote.
The SPLC issued a press release today saying that DOC had at least 152 prisoners with serious mental illnesses in solitary confinement on two randomly chosen days in December 2017 and January 2018.
SPLC attorney Maria Morris said that shows that DOC has not changed its practices.
"For over a year, Alabama's Department of Corrections has ignored the urgent need to protect people with serious mental illness from placement in solitary confinement," Morris said. "We know segregation can be deadly, especially to those already struggling."
DOC spokesman Bob Horton said the department presented a proposal to the court to remove certain categories of mentally ill inmates from segregation if it does not threaten safety and security. That will be done pending the court's approval, Horton said.
Some of the inmates on the list in Thompson's order had already been removed from segregation, Horton said.
"The ADOC maintains that, in certain circumstances, it is necessary to house mentally ill inmates in a restrictive housing setting, particularly when an inmate threatens the safety or security of other inmates and correctional staff," Horton said in an email.
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