Groups sue over Alabama prison conditions

Scales of justice and jail

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Two advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Alabama prison system, claiming the state is failing to provide basic medical and mental health care to inmates.

Attorney Maria Morris of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the state has long known about the problems but has failed to bring care up to humane and constitutional conditions

“The results that we found are shameful. People are suffering and even dying because their obvious medical and mental health care needs are not being met,” Morris said.

The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Center filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Montgomery on behalf of 40 inmates across the state.

The lawsuit alleges that medical and mental health conditions have gone untreated. One inmate had a foot amputated because of untreated gangrene and another died from prostate cancer despite tests identifying rising cancer-marker levels, according to the lawsuit.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas disputed the SPLC’s allegations. He said he was disappointed but not surprised the groups have “chosen to discontinue working with us and instead are insistent upon expensive, time-consuming litigation.”

“We cannot discuss specifics since this matter is now pending litigation, but as we’ve stated, we believe that many of their allegations are grossly inaccurate and appear to be based on incomplete information,” Thomas said.

He said his department stands ready to defend the level of care in court.

Morris said one of the plaintiffs, Joshua Dunn, was stabbed 15 times and got no medical care. Dunn, who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, also cut his wrists with a razor on five different occasions, she said.

“He begged for mental health care. He wasn’t provided with mental health care. He was provided with razor blades in order to shave,” Morris said.

Morris said she thought the cuts were a cry for help since they were done at a time when Dunn thought a nurse would be near.

Dunn’s mother, Reesa Gentle, wiped away tears during a news conference about the lawsuit.

“They need to be treated like humans. They are human beings. They are people,” Gentle said. Gentle said her son has a drug addiction but is nonviolent. Court records show Dunn pleaded guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine in 2014.

It’s not the first time the state has faced such a lawsuit.

The state prison system was placed in federal receivership in the 1970’s following lawsuits over prison conditions, crowding and lack of adequate medical care.

State Sen. Cam Ward, the head of a new prison task force, said last week that the state needs to fix its prison woes to avoid another round of federal court-ordered intervention.

Tuesday’s lawsuit is the latest accusation against the state prison system which has nearly double the number of inmates it was designed to house. Gov. Robert Bentley last week announced the start of a study under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program partly funded by the Department of Justice. Bentley said they hope to have ideas before lawmakers in the 2015 legislative session.

Morris said the problems of overcrowding, adequate medical care and adequate funding are intertwined.

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