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Prison system: Alabama making progress in mental health

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama prison officials contend they are making “substantial progress” in increasing mental health staff and have asked a federal judge to not find the state in contempt of court.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson has scheduled a Jan. 7 hearing on whether the Alabama Department of Corrections should be found in contempt of a court order to increase mental health staffing numbers to minimum levels.

The department wrote in a Friday court filing acknowledged that Wexford Health Sources, the contractor hired to provide health care, had not been able to meet staffing targets but said “both are making all efforts to increase staffing as quickly as possible.”

“In sum, the state is not contending that it has fulfilled every requirement of the staffing remedial order. But it has made in good faith all reasonable efforts to do so, and those efforts have resulted in substantial progress,” the filing stated.

Attorneys for the inmates have asked the judge to find the prison system in contempt, arguing the prison system is “woefully short” of a requirement to fill 263 full-time mental health positions.

“Defendants’ contempt is placing prisoners with serious mental-health needs at a substantial risk of serious harm every day. Their failures are most evident when looking at staffing levels for mental-health staff with advanced training, specifically psychiatrists, CRNPs, psychologists, and registered nurses,” lawyers for inmates wrote earlier this month.

Elaine Gedman, chief administrative officer and executive vice president for Wexford Health Sources, disputed that characterization. She wrote in a declaration with the court filing that they had provided 227 full-time equivalent positions.

The prison system wrote that there has been difficulty in recruiting staff because of a shortage of health professionals in the state, particularly in rural areas. They also said compliance should be measured by “hours of service” provided, instead of just positions filled.

Thompson last year ruled that mental health care was “horrendously inadequate” in state prisons and created unconstitutional conditions. The ruling came after the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed a class-action lawsuit over health care in state prisons.

The first inmate to testify at the trial killed himself days after describing past suicide attempts and a lack of psychiatric treatment while in state custody.

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