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UAB no longer performing autopsies on state inmates

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital has stopped performing contracted autopsies for the Alabama Department of Corrections, leaving the prison system with no one to examine suspected overdoses or natural deaths. 

That puts the burden on inmates’ families, Alabama Appleseed reported recently.

The contract termination comes after a lawsuit and allegations that inmates’ bodies have been missing organs when returned to families. 

In a statement to ADN, ADOC said all inmate deaths are investigated by the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division.  

“Under existing state law, post-mortem examinations or autopsies are only required for deaths resulting from unlawful, suspicious or unnatural causes,” the ADOC said.

“In those cases, the deceased is transported to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for an autopsy. Additionally, all deaths that occur in Jefferson County, Alabama, fall within the jurisdiction of the Jefferson County Coroner and are transported to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office for post-mortem examinations and/or autopsies.”

Deaths not covered under the law requirement receive a toxicology screen prior to being released to the inmate’s family, ADOC said. 

“Although the department previously contracted with UAB hospital to conduct autopsies on suspected overdose or natural deaths, UAB terminated its long-standing agreement with the department, effective April 22, 2024,” the statement said. “Since that time, the department has made numerous inquiries, but has been unable to find another vendor to provide autopsies for ADOC inmates who died of natural causes or suspected overdoses.”

The hospital system confirmed it terminated the contract.

“The UAB Department of Pathology has been in compliance with laws governing autopsies to determine the cause of death of incarcerated individuals under the appropriate clinical standard, and a panel of medical ethicists reviewed and endorsed our protocols regarding autopsies conducted for incarcerated persons,” a statement from the system said.

“UAB has one of the highest-ranked pathology programs in the country, is accredited by the College of American Pathologists, and is staffed by credentialed physicians who are certified by the American Board of Pathology.”

Alabama Appleseed’s Eddie Burkhalter first reported on the parting between ADOC and UAB, highlighting the family of Alonzo Nathaniel Williamson, who died after being found in respiratory distress at Limestone Correctional Facility.

His family has received conflicting accounts about his death and the hours leading up to it, Appleseed reported. Williamson was stabbed by another inmate in December and his lung was punctured. The family sought a private autopsy. 

UAB hospital, the largest in the state, was named earlier this year in lawsuits that allege inmates’ organs were removed prior to their bodies being returned to their families.  

One state lawmaker, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, sought to create criminal penalties for the unauthorized retention of organs during state-ordered autopsies. While state law currently prohibits such practices, the law carries no criminal penalties for violation.

England’s bill, House Bill 200, would have made the unauthorized retention of organs during state-ordered autopsies a Class C felony. The bill passed through the State House, but failed to come up for a vote in the Senate before the end of the most recent legislative session. England told ADN Tuesday that it was likely he would file the bill again next year.

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