Alabama Prison System Goes on Trial

A lawsuit on behalf of Alabama's prisoners, claiming they're being denied mental health care, begins in federal court Monday. The class-action suit states that Alabama doesn't provide adequate mental health treatment for those behind bars.

Lawyers for the prisoners argue that the state provides little other than medication, and sometimes inmates are forced to take it against their will. The plaintiffs allege prison conditions are dangerous and discriminatory, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The conditions in the prisons are inhumane, according to attorney Maria Morris with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery-based group that represents some of the plaintiffs.

"There's just nothing that comports with anything like what we as a civilized people in the 21st century would expect to see as far as the way we're treating people," Morris says.

For instance, she says, one severely mentally ill plaintiff is housed in a suicide-watch cell.

"He is spending 23 hours a day or more locked up in a cell, getting no counseling," says Morris. "That's their highest level of care that they can give him."

The lawsuit is on behalf of Alabama's male prison population. Two years ago, the state agreed to improve conditions in women's prisons after a federal investigation found nearly two decades of systematic abuses, including male officers forcing women to have sex.

The trial that starts Monday is part of a larger lawsuit that also accuses the state of denying male inmates basic medical care. That issue will come to court early next year.

The root problem, Morris says, is that Alabama can't afford to provide adequate services for the number of prisoners it incarcerates.

Alabama's prisons are some of the most crowded in the country. At times, the lockups are at nearly double capacity, with staffing levels that are half what they should be, according to Alabama's Department of Corrections. For example, the state has 21 doctors for about 23,300 prisoners.

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