MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A federal judge will now determine whether the Alabama Department of Corrections is doing enough to prevent a soaring number of inmate suicides. 15 inmates have taken their lives in only 15 months.
An emergency motion filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center prompted a bench trial, which got underway Thursday.
Hours of complicated testimony by ADOC employees revealed a lack of overall training for those who work with inmates with serious mental illness, and a dangerous lack of attention in screening suicidal inmates.
The vast majority of inmates who committed suicide over the last 15 months took their lives in solitary confinement.
Thursday, the plaintiffs called witnesses to determine if those lives could have been saved and what prevention measures are now in place.
The SPLC called Dr. Edward Kern, who oversees clinical aspects of ADOC’s mental health program, as their first witness.
Kern was questioned about the findings of a recent study which cited ADOC inadequately identified those who were suffering from mental illness, lack of overall training for those who work with inmates with serious mental illness, and an inconsistent compliance with an interim order filed by Judge Myron Thompson. That order was issued after a trial in 2017, where he found ADOC’s mental health care to be ‘horrendously inadequate.’
Kern was questioned about pre-placement screenings for inmates, which are conducted by registered nurses or LPNs. The plaintiffs used exhibits showing pre-placement forms that checked various inmates were exhibiting suicidal behavior or confirming they had suicidal thoughts. Despite their diminished capacity, the inmates were placed in restrictive housing and ultimately took their lives.
Thompson began questioning Kern.
“This document is pretty awful isn’t it?” Thompson asked. “It could have had life-altering consequences - in fact, it did.”
Thompson asked Kern how he reacted to this form after the inmate’s suicide, “I was concerned about this,” Kern said.
When asked whether he spoke to the person who conducted the screening, Kern said he was focused on implementing training that would prevent it from happening again. As for when that training was scheduled, Kern was unclear on a date.
Kern testified that he had taken great strides in increasing staff rotations in the restrictive housing units.
“I am giving them specific feedback at the facility level,” Kern said of his one-on-one training with ADOC’s mental health staff.
Kern elaborated he is now walking through rounds with employees, interviewing the inmates personally, and offering additional clinical guidance to further monitor the mental health of those who are in isolation as a means of suicide prevention.
“In my opinion, this is one of the most important initiatives,” said Kern.
The plaintiffs called Charles Daniels, ADOC’s Deputy Commissioner of Operations, as their second witness.
Daniels has extensive experience with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where he cited he received detailed training on inmate suicide prevention and protocols for inmates who were attempting to commit suicide.
“A mandatory refresher course was offered annually. If you worked in restrictive housing you received training quarterly,” Daniels said, citing BOP training that taught officers to identify suicide triggers.
Daniels could not confirm whether ADOC officers received specific suicide prevention training.
Daniels was hired in early January. Four suicides have been reported during his time at ADOC.
Daniels is responsible for issuing a directive two weeks ago that would restrict inmates who were coming off mental health observation or specialized care from being assigned to restrictive housing after realizing that’s the point and place when many inmates were taking their lives.
“That’s plain, flat-out logic,” Daniels testified.
Daniels also revealed that when he asked other ADOC staffers why inmates who had finished specialized care were placed in those cells, no one could identify why. He testified that he is working to break down barriers to create more proactive measures versus the current reactive response pegging those who were responsible.
“The safety and welfare of inmates who are sequestered is what we do,” said Daniels.
When Daniels was asked how many inmates with serious mental illness remained in isolation, he couldn’t answer.
ADOC has disputed assertions that it has been “indifferent” to inmates and said it has proposed a comprehensive plan to reduce suicide risk.
The trial is expected to last up to seven days.