A federal judge on Friday granted class-action status to a lawsuit filed by Alabama inmates who claim the state is failing to provide constitutionally adequate mental health treatment.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson clears the way for the case to go to trial next month on behalf of all current and future inmates with severe mental illness.
Lawyers for the inmates allege that Alabama has failed to identify, protect and treat mentally ill prisoners, leading to suicides and complications from untreated conditions that spiral out of control.
"This ruling is very important for all of the people languishing within Alabama's prisons without the mental healthcare they need," said Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. "They need help, but many are incapable of standing up for their rights. Prison officials have failed to prevent suicides by prisoners with mental health conditions. They have denied them counseling and simply locked them away."
Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said the department is reviewing the decision.
The claims are part of a larger lawsuit over prison medical care. Dozens of inmates filed the lawsuit against the prison system in 2014, claiming the state was failing to provide basic medical and mental healthcare. The state has disputed those accusations.
About 3,300 inmates in state prisons have been identified as having a mental health condition.
Thompson wrote that plaintiffs had identified enough problems to justify class-action certification.
Thompson wrote that evidence suggested the state had shown "deliberate indifference" to ill inmates. He cited mental health administrators communicating that they needed additional staff but it not being provided because of funding difficulties.
The state of Alabama had argued against class-action status, saying that too few cases were reviewed to draw conclusions about systemic inadequacies.
The decision is the latest complication for the state's troubled prison system, which has acknowledged problems with staffing and crowding.
The Department of Justice announced last month that it was launching an investigation into conditions at Alabama's prisons for men.