Alabama to defend prison staffing plan in federal court

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( — U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson will hear arguments next week on the Alabama prison system's plan to hire more correctional officers and mental health caregivers in response to the judge's finding that mental health care in prisons is "horrendously inadequate."

Thompson ruled in June that Alabama is in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, because of what he said was the poor level of care.

In a 302-page opinion, Thompson wrote that the DOC failed to identify many prisoners with mental illness and failed to adequately treat those who were identified. He found that prisoners were punished for symptoms of their mental illness, like sitting in segregation cells for prolonged periods. The judge found that shortages of correctional staff and mental health staff were key factors.

Lawyers for the state dispute Thompson's findings and say they have reserved the right to appeal. But in the meantime, the case is moving into a remedy phase that is likely to take months and could be expensive for taxpayers.

In October, the state submitted to the court its proposed remedial plan for increasing correctional staffing and mental health staffing. It calls for nearly doubling the mental health staff, adding 125 full-time employees at an estimated cost of at least $10 million a year. That does not include the additional cost for employing more correctional officers.

The state staffing plan is contingent on increased funding from the Legislature. Lawmakers begin their annual session on Jan. 9.

The mental health case is part of a wider lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program in 2014. Claims alleging poor medical care are on hold. The state and plaintiffs agreed to a settlement on claims that the Department of Corrections failed to provide for prisoners with disabilities. A plan to fix those deficiencies is in the works.

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