Unprecedented spike in suicides in AL prisons, quadruple the national average

(Source: WSFA 12 News)
Updated: Feb. 8, 2019 at 7:11 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Southern Poverty Law Center is calling on state lawmakers to quickly solve the mental health emergency playing out in Alabama’s prisons.

Friday, the SPLC accused the governor and DOC Commissioner of being derelict in their duty by failing to meet the basic mental health needs of vulnerable prisoners.

Wednesday another inmate committed suicide, marking the 13th inmate to take their on life in 14 months.

“We as a deeply moral people cannot continue to ignore these problems while people are killing themselves who are in the custody of the state,” stated SPLC President Richard Cohen. “It’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional, and it has to stop.”

The spike in suicides comes after a key 2017 decision by a federal judge who ruled the state’s mental health system inside the ADOC to be horrendously inadequate and issued orders for change.

“Since November 2018, six people have killed themselves,” stated SPLC Attorney Maria Morris. “That’s an unprecedented rate of suicides. In the last year the rate of suicides in ADOC has been roughly four times the national average.”

"Still, ADOC has continued to fail to address these problems,” said Morris.

Their most critical concern: placing inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement where the vast majority of suicides have occurred.

“We filed an emergency motion asking the court to address the most dangerous and horrific practices in ADOC, we are awaiting a ruling on that motion,” Morris stated. “As we wait on the court, ADOC needs to take action. There are many things they know they need to do. They need to step up and treat this for what it is - a life or death emergency.”

Paul Ford killed himself in solitary confinement at Kilby Prison less than a month ago. It’s been a staggering loss for his family, including his 8-year-old daughter.

“We had dreams, and now they’re gone,” wept his wife, Jerri Ford, as her young daughter buried her head. “It’s over….it’s over and it’s not right. We loved him, he loved us.”

Ford’s sister Tracy said she had finally scheduled a visitation with her brother this week, something she had been looking forward to.

“But instead, I had to go pick up his stuff,” Ford said as she wiped away tears.

The attorney representing a growing number of families who have lost loved ones to suicide while in ADOC custody wanted the public to see the true human impact of the lack of mental health resources.

“The suffering they have had leading up to their deaths has carried a human toll, that toll is represented behind me here,” stated Mitch McGuire. “They are mothers, fathers, and granddaughters, aunts and uncles of these individuals who have died due to the total failure of the DOC.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections responded to the allegations late Friday, giving assurance this on-going concern will be addressed by ADOC.

“To comply with this Order, the ADOC increased mental health staffing, reconfigured facilities to accommodate suicidal inmates and revised its policies and procedures – all with the approval of SPLC,” stated ADOC spokesman Bob Horton in a news release. “As a result of these efforts, the ADOC demonstrated great improvements in suicide prevention in 2017 with only inmate suicide. However, the recent spike in suicides call into question the long-term effectiveness of the suicide prevention measures proposed by the SPLC.”

Horton stated experts retained by ADOC and the SPLC will publish a report in March on suicide prevention recommendations and the department will fully implement those measures as a long-term solution.

“Our department is committed to providing appropriate care for those with mental illness and we have plan to address the conditions inside our prisons that hinder our ability to meet that commitment,” Commissioner Jeff Dunn said. “In addition to increasing our mental health staff, we also are developing a prison revitalization plan that will consolidate the delivery of mental and medical health care in a new state-of-the-art health care facility. More information about the plan will be made public in the coming days. I am focused on solving this problem.”

Cohen responded to the statement given by Dunn.

“As the Court recognized in June 2017, this is an ADOC-created crisis that necessitates a comprehensive solution. The fact that ADOC refuses to take responsibility for its own grossly incompetent treatment of the prisoners under its care and 13 deaths is shocking and reprehensible. Instead of solving the problem, ADOC is blaming the messenger," said Cohen. “This response gives us no confidence they will be able to deal in the short term with a mental health crisis or in the long term with creating a prison system that supervises and rehabilitates Alabamians. Most of all, this response saddens us - that people across the state will continue to be fearful of the treatment their family members will receive in ADOC prisons tonight and beyond.”

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