(Photo courtesy of Alabama Public Radio)

A federal district court judge has ruled that Alabama’s “horrendously inadequate” treatment of mentally ill inmates violates the United States Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision, written by U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson, is only the first in a series considering various phases of a class-action lawsuit filed by Alabama inmates with disabilities alleging unlawful conditions and treatment by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). Just over 300 pages long, Thompson’s opinion focuses on mental health treatment, with physical disabilities and accommodations set to be considered in a later trial.

The ruling says evidence from both the inmates and ADOC supported the lawsuit’s claims.

“Surprisingly, the evidence from both sides (including testimony from Commissioner [Jeff] Dunn and Associate Commissioner [Ruth] Naglich as well as that of all experts) extensively and materially supported the plaintiffs’ claim,” Thompson wrote. “ADOC’s Office of Health Services, run by Associate Commissioner Ruth Naglich, has done vanishingly little to exercise oversight of the provision of care to mentally ill prisoners. This failure exemplifies ADOC’s disregard of the substantial risk of serious harm to mentally ill prisoners within ADOC.”

In its pages, the decision lists case after case where prison officials were aware of problems but failed to act accordingly. In particular, Judge Thompson writes about the life and death of Jamie Wallace, an inmate who testified in the trial before committing suicide.

“The trial opened with the testimony of prisoner Jamie Wallace, who suffered from severe mental illnesses, intellectual disability and substantial physical disabilities,” Thompson wrote. “Wallace stated that he had tried to kill himself many times, showed the court the scars on arms where he made repeated attempts and complained that he had not received sufficient treatment for his illness. Because of his mental illness, he became so agitated during his testimony that the court had to recess and reconvene to hear his testimony in the quiet of the chambers library and then coax him into completing his testimony as if he were a fearful child. … Unfortunately, and most tragically, 10 days after Wallace testified, he killed himself by hanging.”

Thompson’s opinion found ADOC did not identify prisoners with serious mental health issues, failed to provide them with treatment plans and did not provide properly qualified or supervised mental health professionals for care. The ruling also concluded the department did not provide hospital-like care for inmates when needed, imposed disciplinary sanctions on mentally ill inmates for exhibiting symptoms of their illnesses without regard for their mental health and placed these inmates in segregation for lengthy periods without valid reason.

Additionally, in cases like Wallace’s, the court found, ADOC did not aim to identify suicidal inmates appropriately or provide adequate treatment or supervision when identified.

While the court’s actions have resulted in some immediate action, including an agreement involving the revamping of suicide-risk procedures, it’s unclear what long-term impact it will have, as state lawmakers hold the ultimate power in finding decisions that could address the prison system’s inadequacies.

“The court emphasizes that, given the severity and urgency of the need for mental health care explained in this opinion, the proposed relief must be both immediate and long term. No partial final judgment shall issue at this time as to the claim resolved in this entry,” Thompson’s opinion said.

A bill that would have funded the building of four new state prisons failed to pass last legislative session.

Jeff Dunn, Alabama’s prisons commissioner, responded to the court’s ruling. “This order will require a broader conversation with our state leadership about how we can responsibly address the challenges facing the department,” he said. “While portions of the trial focused upon issues related to mental health care, it also highlighted many of the other challenges facing the department, like our outdated facilities and our long-standing needs in the area of security. We look forward to having an open and frank conversation with our state leadership about how to make meaningful investments into our department.”

Gov. Kay Ivey, who has yet to take an official stand on prison construction, also released a statement on the federal court’s ruling, in which she hinted at a special legislative session to tackle the issue.

“I am committed to providing justice to all Alabamians by ensuring constitutionally permissible conditions for all prisoners,” Ivey said. “I will be working closely with Commissioner Dunn and the leadership in the House and Senate to address the issues raised in today’s order. All appropriate options at my disposal, including the possibility of a special session, will be considered as potential remedies to address the judge’s order.”

Attorneys for the inmates with disabilities also addressed the court’s decision in their favor.

“This ruling means that prisoners with mental illness may finally get the treatment they have been denied for so long,” said Maria Morris, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The suffering some of these men and women have endured is excruciating and inhumane. We are pleased Judge Thompson has demanded that the state of Alabama meet its constitutional obligation to provide adequate care.”

Another of the inmates’ attorneys, Lisa Borden, also responded to the opinion and specifically addressed Wallace’s death.

“The court’s opinion today confirmed, and condemned, the constitutionally inadequate conditions that prisoners with serious mental illness have suffered for so long. ADOC’s system of mental health care fails the moment a prisoner walks in the door, and continues to fail at every step,” Borden said. “As the court found, these failures to provide desperately needed treatment subject prisoners to needless pain, serious injury and even, in cases like that of Jamie Wallace, death. In addition, the court’s opinion confirms that ADOC officials have long been aware of these failures, but have done little or nothing to correct them. We are gratified that ADOC officials will no longer be permitted to sit on their hands or pass the buck at the risk of people’s lives.”

The next phase of the inmate disability trial will soon move forward.