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Warden testifies in trial over prisons’ mental health care

By MALLORY MOENCH, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — In late February, Alabama prison inmate Billy Lee Thornton stepped onto his cell bed, put a shoe string around his neck and hung himself from the light fixture, according to an incident report written by a correctional officer who witnessed the incident. The correctional officer, who had been at the door of Thornton’s segregated cell talking with him about medication, immediately called for help.

As two officers rushed into the cell at Holman Correctional Facility and reached for Thornton, the string broke and Thornton fell, hitting his head. Thornton was rushed to the hospital. Four days later he was taken off life support.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who last year ruled that Alabama provides “horrendously inadequate” mental health care to state inmates, ordered a Monday hearing on the circumstances of Thornton’s death and the death of another inmate.

Holman Warden Cynthia Stewart testified Monday in federal court that Thornton was placed on mental health observation but not a suicide watch after a previous attempt to kill himself.

Thornton was on the prison’s mental health caseload and had already attempted to hang himself on Dec. 27, 2017. A mental health evaluation presented to the court described him as hearing voices that told him to kill himself. He was placed under mental health observation, not a suicide watch, and stayed in a crisis cell under more intense supervision until Jan. 4.

The plaintiff’s attorney Maria Morris said there is no documentation to show that Thornton received a mental health check 30 days after his release from the crisis cell. The 30-day check is required under a January 2017 court order that outlines a plan to protect possibly suicidal prisoners.

After receiving another mental health evaluation where he was again described as having suicidal thoughts, Thornton was placed in a crisis cell on Feb. 22. He was released one day later. Morris said no documents show he received another mental health check before his death.

Stewart said she didn’t know at the time about Thornton’s first suicide attempt.

Bob Horton, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that the department is continuing to “investigate and evaluate the circumstances surrounding the death of the inmate at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility.”

“This evaluation will include a review of actions of our contracted mental health staff and our correctional staff and whether those actions complied with departmental policy as well as any outstanding directives from the federal court,” Horton wrote.

The department said the incident was currently classified as an attempted suicide.

“I think today showed the Department of Corrections continues to leave prisoners who have severe mental health needs and have shown signs of dramatic decompensation in segregation at risk of harms to themselves without proper monitoring or treatment,” Morris said.

Thornton was 31 when he died.

His sister Taneisha Head, 29, was present at Monday’s hearing.

“We’re just here for the truth,” she said. She said he never had a history of mental illness.

“I knew my brother. He was coming home,” she told The Associated Press. “I told him we can’t wait till he comes home, and we can ride around in my new car and listen to blues.”

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