Families sue state of Alabama over inmate suicides citing improper mental care

Published 9:58 am Thursday, February 27, 2020

Relatives of four inmates who killed themselves inside Alabama prisons are suing the state over the men’s suicides, adding to the legal problems for an agency already in court over its treatment of prisoners.

The lawsuit claims corrections officials didn’t provide proper care for the men despite knowing they had severe mental illnesses and would sometimes harm themselves. A lawyer for the families says they want to hold state officials accountable, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

The suit was filed by relatives of Paul Ford, Billy Lee Thornton, Ryan Rust and Matthew Holmes, who took their lives inside state prisons in 2018 and 2019. It names defendants including Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn.

“The defendants can no longer rely on excuses such as staffing shortages and poor administrative discipline. They must now be held accountable for the deaths of humans who suffered so greatly from the state’s failure to provide adequate mental health care, that suicide appeared to them to be the only option,” said Mitch McGuire, a lawyer for the families.

The department declined comment Thursday on the lawsuit, which McGuire said was filed in federal court in Montgomery on Monday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections already is facing a federal lawsuit over its handling of inmates with mental illness. U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson found the state’s care “horrendously inadequate” in 2017 and ordered systemic overhauls, many of which are still moving through courts.

The suit over the inmate deaths claims the state has failed to implement court-ordered changes.

The lawsuit claims only a small percentage of mental health professionals employed by the department’s health contractors were fully licensed, contrary to a contract, and they often went unsupervised while unorganized record-keeping led to inappropriate and unsafe housing assignments for men in mental health crisis.

Families of two of the inmates who died, Ford and Thornton, rallied in front of the Statehouse last year with attorneys who called a spate of 13 inmate deaths in 14 months a “life-or-death emergency.”

“I miss him terribly,” said Jeri Ford, Ford’s wife. “What has happened to him will affect us for the rest of our lives.”