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Advocacy group: Alabama has prison suicide crisis

By KIM CHANDLER,  Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An advocacy group charged Friday that Alabama officials have failed to address a rising suicide rate in state prisons despite a federal court order to improve conditions for mentally ill inmates.

Attorneys representing inmates in an ongoing lawsuit over mental health care argued state officials have done “precious little” to address inmate suicides.

“People are killing themselves in our prisons because conditions are horrendous,” Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen said at a news conference with the families of inmates.

The organization said there have been 13 suicides in 14 months, the latest one on Wednesday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a statement Friday said that the “recent spike in suicides within ADOC is an on-going concern and will be addressed by the ADOC.”

Alabama Department of Corrections monthly reports list that they were four inmate suicides in fiscal year 2017 and six in 2018.

In late December and January, there were three suicides within four weeks in the state prisons.

With their 8-year-old granddaughter beside her, Jerri Ford wiped away tears as she described the loss of her husband, Paul Ford.

“He was our everything, everything and we don’t have him anymore. And it’s not right,” Jerri Ford said.

Paul Ford, 49, was found hanging last month from a bed sheet in his cell at Kilby Correctional Facility. He was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole following a murder conviction. In court filings, the SPLC said, Ford had a prior suicide attempt and spent much of the past year in a restrictive setting or on some form of crisis watch.

Jerri Ford said in the months before his death, she began to worry about her husband’s mental state.

“He was seeing things, hallucinating. … He was scared to go to sleep,” she said.

Betty Head wore a jacket decorated with photos of her son, Billy Thornton, Jr., who officials say killed himself in prison. He was 32 and left behind a daughter.

“He was supposed to come home in September,” Head said.

Inmate lawyers have asked a federal judge to block the state from placing prisoners with serious mental illnesses into segregation units or similar settings, where they said the extreme isolation becomes an incubator for worsening mental health symptoms. The judge responded by asking for the state to provide information on how many inmates are in such settings.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 ruled that mental health care in Alabama prisons was “horrendously inadequate” and ordered the state to improve conditions.

While the SPLC contended the prison system has failed to deliver on its promises to the court, the department said the recent spike “calls into question the long-term effectiveness of the suicide prevention measures proposed by the SPLC” during the litigation.

“Our department is committed to providing appropriate care for those with mental illness and we have plans to address the conditions inside our prisons that hinder our ability to meet that commitment,” Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said.

Ivey is expected to announce a proposal soon to replace state prisons, possibly leasing facilities built by private firms. Dunn said a prison revitalization plan includes a new facility for mental health and medical care

The SPLC criticized the push for prison construction, saying the plan will be costly when the state faces a staff shortage. The department is seeking a funding increase to hire 500 additional corrections officers, but has told the court it may need to add as many as 2,000.

“Jamming thousands of people into some shiny new building will not solve the constitutional violations,” Maria Morris, an attorney with the SPLC, said.

A state lawmaker said he believes the department is trying to address the problem, but “the data speaks for itself.”

“There is no question the suicide rate is higher than it should be,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs a prison oversight committee.

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