Corrections officers are severely understaffed and untrained on how to deal with suicidal prisoners.

The Birmingham News/Tamika Moore

Prison Suicide Highlights Mental Health Care Problems in Alabama PrisonsDecember 21, 2016

Just over two weeks after he testified in federal court about the lack of mental health care he had received in Alabama Department of Corrections custody, inmate Jamie Wallace killed himself in DOC custody.  On Dec. 15, the 24 year old was found hanging in his cell.  He had testified on Dec. 5 in a federal trial challenging DOC’s failure to provide adequate mental health care in Alabama prisons.  The class-action lawsuit was brought by Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

Wallace testified to the infrequency of seeing mental health staff despite having bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and repeatedly cutting and harming himself.  In response to his efforts at self-harm, he told the court, a corrections officer once gave him a razor. 

Highlighting the level of DOC’s failure, Wallace’s death occurred at Bullock Correctional Facility, the main mental health facility within the Alabama prison system.  Even more troubling is that he was found dead in a “stabilization unit,” which is the highest level of mental health care within the system, specifically designed for housing inmates who might be a danger to themselves or others.  SPLC senior supervising attorney Maria Morris questioned why, in that unit, he had access to a sheet with which to hang himself.

In EJI’s federal class action lawsuit  brought on behalf of prisoners at St. Clair Correctional Facility for the violent conditions there, the same problems have emerged.  Corrections officers are severely understaffed and untrained on how to deal with suicidal prisoners.  One prisoner who had been raped by another inmate and reported to a mental health worker that he was suicidal was put in a crisis cell for five days and then put in segregation in the same cell block as his attacker; no one from mental health followed up with him.   Another inmate who had been raped told an officer that he was suicidal; the officer responded by telling him to “ [d]o it.”  In addition, there is a pattern of suicides among men housed in isolation statewide, including Justin HoschWilliam Randall TriplettBrian Smith, and Charles Pratt.

This week, these issues came up directly in the court room.  National guidelines call for constant observation of suicidal inmates.  Judge Myron Thompson questioned whether DOC had ever “taken [] to task” MHM – with whom DOC contracts to provide mental health services – for failing to meet these guidelines.  Ruth Naglich, DOC associate commissioner for health services, testified that prison layout and lack of correctional staff were a cause of many of the problems.  Judge Thompson asked Naglich, “As a result of lack of correctional staff, someone could die?,” to which she responded, “Yes, sir.” 

The lack of mental health care in Alabama’s prison system is representative of broader systemic failures that subject inmates to unconstitutional conditions.   Without adequate staffing, training, recording, and reporting of violent and mental health incidents, the problems will continue.   In addition to the current pending federal lawsuits, the U.S. Department of Justice recently initiated an investigation into conditions at Alabama prisons statewide.