- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Mentally ill inmates spending most of their day locked alone in cells. Violence and suicide attempts caused from untreated illnesses. So few mental health staff that treatment is limited to brief cell-front visits.

Those are the accusations made by attorneys representing inmates in a class-action lawsuit that claims the mental health care provided in Alabama prisons is so inadequate that it violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The non-jury trial begins Monday before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in what could be a key moment for the prison system.

“We think we will be able to prove that the mental health care being provided to prisoners in the Alabama Department of Corrections is not up to the very minimal standards required by the Constitution,” said Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups representing inmates.

The trial is the latest complication for the troubled state prison system. Under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for prison conditions, Alabama prisons house nearly twice the inmates they were originally designed to hold. A prison guard was stabbed to death in September at a south Alabama prison that was the site of two uprisings in which inmates set fires, seized control of a dormitory and stabbed and wounded the warden.

The state agreed to make improvements at its only prison for women, after the Justice Department said the female inmates lived in a climate of sexual abuse and harassment.

Craig Haney, an expert witness for plaintiffs, wrote in a report that the level of suffering is “extreme and extremely unsettling.”

“I have witnessed things in the ADOC_including truly abysmal conditions and shocking levels of neglect and maltreatment of vulnerable and desperately mentally ill prisoners- that I have rarely if ever seen in some 40 years of doing this kind of work, including some things that I am not sure I would have believed if I had not witnessed them firsthand,” Haney wrote.

The state - while acknowledging the system’s problems with crowding - has vigorously disputed the accusation of constitutionally inadequate medical care.

Experts for the state submitted reports stating that the prison system has a “clearly defined mental health delivery services system, with policy and procedures consistent with national standards of practice.”

“ADOC has work to do, but I do not believe its shortcomings rise to the level of constitutional violation,” Robert Ayers, Jr. wrote an expert witness report for the state.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said this week he could not comment on the pending litigation.

“We are going to defend the case as vigorously as we can,” Dunn said.

The Department of Corrections contracts with a private vendor to provide mental health care to all prisoners in its custody. In February, there were 3,416 inmates - or about 14 percent of the prison population - on the mental health caseload. More than 2,300 inmates were receiving psychotropic medications.

The claims over mental health treatment are part of a larger inmate lawsuit filed in 2014 over medical care.

Thompson certified the lawsuit as a class-action lawsuit last month on behalf of all current and future inmates with serious mental illness.

The litigation echoes lawsuits in other states, including California, South Carolina and Arizona, that led to court orders and settlement agreements to improve conditions or reduce crowding.

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