Paul Ford

Paul Ford

MONTGOMERY -- Relatives of Paul Ford, a Talladega man who hung himself in prison last month, were among those present Friday when lawyers representing state inmates held a news conference in front of the Alabama State House.

Grieving family members of other inmates who took their own lives in prison in the last year were also present.

The attorneys conducting the news conference were from the Southern Poverty Law Center. They said the suicide rate in Alabama prisons has risen to a level that constitutes an emergency, and that it shows the state is not fixing what a federal judge ruled in 2017 was an unconstitutional lack of mental health care for inmates.

The SPLC said 13 inmates have committed suicide in Alabama prisons since December 2017. That total includes Roderick Dewayne Abrams, of Birmingham, who hung himself inside a cell in the St. Clair Correctional Facility on Jan. 2.

The most recent state inmate suicide was Daniel Scott Gentry, 31, who was found hanging in his cell at William Donaldson Correctional Facility on Wednesday.

The 13 suicides over the last year place the Alabama rate at four times the national average for prisons, SPLC attorney Maria Morris said. The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program represent inmates in the federal case.

Last month, they asked U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson for an emergency order to block the placement of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness in segregation, or individual cells, because the isolation causes their conditions to worsen and increases the risk of suicide. Thompson cited the risk of isolating mentally ill inmates in his 2017 ruling that mental health care was “horrendously inadequate.”

But Morris said the practice persists, and that ADOC needs to immediately take steps to stop it.

“They need to step up and treat this like what it is, a life and death emergency,” Morris said. “ADOC needs to act now to stop this extraordinary loss of life.”

Ford’s relatives present

Jerri Ford joined the lawyers at Friday’s press conference. Ford’s husband, Paul Ford, hung himself at the Kilby Correctional Facility in January. Ford was in a segregation cell and had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, according to the SPLC. He was serving a sentence of life without parole for a 1995 murder conviction in Talladega County. Ford’s sister, nephew and granddaughter also appeared Friday.

“He was a very good person,” Jerri Ford said. “He thought a lot of other people. He was not selfish, by no means.”

She said the segregation and limited visitation opportunities took a toll on her husband, as well as she and the rest of the family.

“He got us through as much as we got him through, the situations that we were in,” Jerri Ford said. “Without each other, that’s just how it goes.”

Overcrowded, understaffed

Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years.

SPLC President Richard Cohen said Gov. Kay Ivey and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn have not confronted the problems and criticized the plan under consideration by the Ivey administration to build three new prisons at an expected cost of about $1 billion.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley also proposed building new prisons in 2016 and 2017, but the Legislature would not grant its approval.

“Now, the governor and her staff behind closed doors are creating a new scheme to get around the wisdom of the people,” Cohen said.

During her inaugural address last month, Ivey said she would make an announcement soon on prison construction.

Friday, Cohen called on the Legislature to tackle the prison problems with mental health care, medical care and violence.

“Everyone knows we can’t build our way out of these problems,” Cohen said. “Everyone knows we need to address the acute problems with mental health care, medical care, prison violence, and we’re not going to be doing it by simply building new prisons that may open sometime in the distant future.”

The governor’s office declined comment on the remarks from the SPLC officials Friday.

Dunn has said replacement of aging, outdated facilities is one component of fixing the state’s prisons, including medical care and mental health care. The ADOC is also asking the Legislature for a $42 million increase in its General Fund appropriation next year, with most of the increase intended to hire 500 additional correctional officers and boost correctional officer pay by 20 percent to help in recruitment and retention.

But the ADOC needs to add more than 2,000 additional officers over the next few years, according to the ADOC analysis submitted to the court, the SPLC said.

Morris said the state cannot ignore the problem of prison suicides.

“These are our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters,” Morris said. “They’re in our prisons, and they suffer hopelessness and desperation, and many of them suffer from mental illness. Alabama needs to address this problem, and it needs to do it now.”