Alabama's Prison System Goes On Trial

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Prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., on June 18, 2015. A trial starts Monday over conditions in Alabama's prisons.

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.

The class-action lawsuit comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights probe of Alabama's chronically overcrowded and understaffed prison system. Investigators are looking at whether prisoners are safe from physical harm, as well as examining reports of sexual abuse committed by prisoners and guards.

Violence in Alabama's prisons has escalated this year. A warden and guard were stabbed during an uprising at the Holman Correctional Facility – the maximum security prison that houses Alabama's Death Row. In September, a guard was stabbed to death by an inmate in the prison's mess hall.

The Department of Corrections won't comment on the litigation, but state leaders know there's a crisis developing.

"We acknowledge it and realize it's about to be an issue so we're going to have to deal with it," says Republican State Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Alabama legislature's prison oversight committee. Ward has helped push sentencing reforms in recent years, but he says that alone can't help unless there's political will to invest in updating Alabama's antiquated prison system.

"It's not politically popular," says Ward. "No one goes home to campaign and says, 'By the way, keep me as your senator or house member because I'm going to fix the prisons.'"

But he says the state is in a position now "where we really don't have a choice."

Ward says the state is on a path to receivership — a costly court takeover of the system. Alabama's prisons were last under federal court control in the 1970s because of what was determined to be unconstitutional conditions.

"We consistently talk about the First Amendment, the Second Amendment," says Ward. "We've just ignored the Eighth Amendment, which is cruel and unusual punishment, so we're going to have to address that."

While testimony gets underway in the federal class-action lawsuit, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is pushing state lawmakers to approve a massive new prison building program.

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