Alabama Prisons Face Costly Remedy on Mental Health Care

AL.COM- MIKE CASON

A lawmaker who has led prison reform efforts in Alabama estimates it will take an extra $30 million a year to improve mental health treatment in prisons to fix what a federal judge found is an unconstitutionally poor system of care.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, presided over a meeting of the Joint Legislative Prison Committee today. The committee got an update on the federal court case.

U.S. District Judge Myron ThompsonĀ ruled in JuneĀ that mental health care in Alabama prisons is "horrendously inadequate," so poor that it violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Thompson ordered the state and the lawyers representing inmates into mediation to find a remedy.

Two weeks ago, Thompson ordered the state and plaintiffs to submit a joint proposal on immediate and long-term relief for understaffing of mental health and correctional staff by Oct. 9.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in 2014, include the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

Thompson conducted a trial in late 2016 and early 2017 and found that the prison system failed to identify many mentally ill prisoners and failed to adequately treat those who were diagnosed. The judge found that prisoners were punished and placed in segregation for symptoms of their mental illnesses. He found suicidal prisoners were not adequately treated and monitored. The prison system failed to provide hospital-level care for prisoners who needed it, Thompson wrote. Understaffing of mental health professionals and of correctional officers were overarching problems, Thompson found, as was chronic overcrowding.

SPLC attorney Maria Morris told the Joint Legislative Prison Committee today that mental health counselors in Alabama prisons have caseloads of 100 to 150 people, about twice the number they should have. Morris said the number of inmates needing mental health care could possibly double.

Morris said it would take an estimated $20 million to hire the additional mental health staff needed. Morris said that was a rough estimate and probably on the low side.

Ward agreed that her estimate was probably low.

"I think probably, realistically, you're looking at close to $30 million more in the Corrections budget to deal with the mental health staffing," Ward said.

Morris estimated it could cost $100 million a year or more to fix the shortage of corrections officers. Morris said that was a rough estimate. She said as of June, the number of corrections officers employed by the Department of Corrections was just 41 percent of an "authorized" staff number.

Ward said he was uncertain about the cost of fixing the shortage of corrections officers.

Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn told the committee that the DOC is working to find a remedy for mental health care that is "both responsive to the court and respectful of taxpayers."

"We're going to do that with every ounce that we can muster and we're going to provide what we believe is a constitutionally acceptable solution to the issues that we're challenged with and then we're going to seek the partnership of the Legislature to move forward on that," Dunn said.

Dunn said the prison population continues to decline. The Legislature passed sentencing guidelines that took effect in 2013 and criminal justice reforms in 2015. Dunn said the population is down about 4,000 inmates over the last three and a half years. At one time, prisons were filled to almost twice their designed capacity.

As of June, state prisons housed 21,888 inmates in facilities designed for 13,318, an occupancy rate of 165 percent.

But Dunn said the prevalence of violence, contraband and drugs in prisons remains at critically high levels.

Ward said the cost of correcting the prison problem will be the single biggest challenge facing the Legislature when it returns in January.

"But we can't say we didn't see this coming," Ward said. "We've been talking about this for years, that there's going to be a problem and there's going to be a train wreck. And it's in front of us now."

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