AL prison officials seek to avoid contempt of court ruling over mental health staffing

Updated: Sep. 20, 2018 at 3:58 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It has been known that Alabama’s prisons do not have enough correctional officers and mental health professionals.

The U.S. District Court of Middle Alabama ruled in 2017 that mental health care in Alabama prisons was lacking and violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, represented a prisoner in the case and said there needs to be more mental health professionals in prisons.

“The Constitution requires us to provide them that treatment,” said Maria Morris, an SPLC attorney. “These people are suffering. They are suffering a lot from an illness that they have and they need treatment.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections has since been ordered to increase its mental health care staffing, with benchmarks set in May, June and July. These benchmarks were part of a remedy to fix the staffing problem. But ADOC acknowledges it was not in compliance with the May and June deadlines.

The SPLC wanted the court to hold the Alabama prison system in contempt for not meeting those benchmarks. ADOC officials faced hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, arguing why it should not be held in contempt of court.

ADOC lawyers said in their written defense the state’s mental health vendor, Wexford Health Sources, Inc., had “worked tirelessly to recruit and to retain a quality workforce.”

They listed three reasons why they should not to be held in contempt:

  1. The state and the new prison health care contractor - Wexford Health Sources Inc. -  have made all “reasonable and extensive” efforts to fulfill the order and is demonstrating tremendous progress
  2. It is impossible for the state to employ the required mental health workers at all times due to employment realities such as officer salaries 
  3. Being in contempt of court requires that the state intentionally refused to comply with the order, but they have been working to meet all the requirements

But the SPLC says the department was supposed to tell the court if they could not staff at the agreed upon numbers.

“What we found, particularly starting in June, we realized that they weren’t making the numbers and they weren’t telling the court,” Morris said.

District Judge Myron Thompson suspended the hearings Wednesday and continued oral arguments Thursday with both parties for clarification.

WSFA 12 News reached out to ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn for an interview. He was not available, but his spokesperson provided this statement.

“The Court yesterday elected to postpone further proceedings on plaintiffs’ pending motion related to mental health staffing.  Today, the Court will convene oral argument on the ADOC’s motion to clarify the Court’s underlying order regarding mental health staffing.  ADOC expects that the Court will issue an opinion on the ADOC’s motion to clarify at some point in the near future.  After the Court rules on ADOC’s pending motion for clarification, the parties have agreed to return to mediation to discuss how ADOC and its mental health vendor will continue to fill vacant mental health positions.”

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