Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Braggs v. Dunn

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

February 20, 2018

EDWARD BRAGGS, et al., Plaintiffs,
JEFFERSON S. DUNN, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, et al., Defendants.



         Previously this court found that the State of Alabama provides inadequate mental-health care in its prisons in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. See Braggs v. Dunn, 257 F.Supp.3d 1171, 1267 (M.D. Ala. 2017) (Thompson, J.). The court now finds that the State's proposed plan to remedy one overarching aspect of the violation--correctional and mental-health understaffing--is minimally adequate and acceptable, albeit with minor modifications.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural Background

          The plaintiffs in this class-action lawsuit include a group of mentally ill prisoners in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC or Department). The defendants are ADOC Commissioner Jefferson Dunn and the ADOC Associate Commissioner of Health Services Ruth Naglich, who are both sued in only their official capacities. In a liability opinion entered on June 27, 2017, this court found that ADOC's mental-health care for prisoners in its custody was, “[s]imply put, ... horrendously inadequate.” Braggs, 257 F.Supp.3d at 1267. The court laid out seven factors contributing to the Eighth Amendment violation. Id. at 1267-68. In addition, it found that “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff” constitute an “overarching issue[] that permeate[s] each of the ... contributing factors of inadequate mental-health care.” Id. at 1268. “[G]iven the severity and urgency of the need for mental-health care explained in [the] opinion, ” the court emphasized, “the proposed relief must be both immediate and long term.” Id.

         After two months of mediation to develop a comprehensive remedial plan, it became apparent that the remedy was too large and complex to be addressed all at once. The court therefore severed the remedy into several discrete issues, to be addressed seriatim. See Phase 2A Revised Remedy Scheduling Order on Eighth Amendment Claim (doc. no. 1357). The court explained: “To be sure, in a sense all of the contributing factors identified in the court's June 27 opinion warrant urgent resolution. Indeed, a continuing Eighth Amendment violation, because it is ‘cruel and unusual, ' could be viewed as in need of swift and serious attention of both courts and the parties involved. Yet the court is convinced that breaking down the issues in the above manner will, in the long run, result in a more efficient, timely, and full resolution of this aspect of this litigation.” Id. at 7-8.

         Because of the centrality of understaffing to other problems in ADOC's provision of mental-health care, it was determined that this issue “must be addressed at the outset, ” and that “the earlier the problem is attacked the better.” Id. at 4-5. Accordingly, on October 9, 2017, the defendants submitted a proposed remedial plan on understaffing, to which the plaintiffs were allowed to respond. The court then held a nine-day evidentiary hearing, and heard oral argument, in late 2017 on whether the plan should be adopted as proposed, and whether a remedial order should be entered at this time. After oral argument, the parties were instructed to submit proposed orders. Because the plan changed in certain respects over the course of this process, the defendants submitted a revised timeline.

         B. Liability Findings as to Understaffing

          In addition to the seven “contributing factors” to the Eighth Amendment violation, the court more specifically found that persistent and severe shortages of correctional and mental-health staff have “cascading effects” that “contribute to all of the deficiencies in ADOC's treatment of mentally ill prisoners.” Braggs, 257 F.Supp.3d at 1188, 1193. The court noted: “ADOC has maintained mental-health staffing levels that are chronically insufficient across disciplines and facilities. Witness after witness identified significant mental-health staffing shortages as one of the major reasons for ADOC's inability to meet the rising mental-health care needs of prisoners.” Id. at 1194. Indeed, ADOC Commissioner Dunn described understaffing, along with overcrowding, as a “two-headed monster” facing the prison system. Id. at 1184.

         Moreover, as the court explained, ADOC's understaffing problem is self-compounding: shortages in mental-health staff lead to unbearably high caseloads for mental-health staff members, which in turn causes turnover and further understaffing, and even higher caseloads. Id. at 1196. The Department's lack of correctional staff “leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control” and causes “prisoners and correctional officers alike” to be “justifiably afraid for their safety.” Id. at 1198. As multiple witnesses testified at the understaffing remedial hearing, this legitimate perception of danger to correctional staff--which is a direct result of understaffing--begets further understaffing: it is a major impediment to recruitment and retention.

         The court found that understaffing underlies ADOC's deficient mental-health care in several ways. The shortage of mental-health staff has resulted in “a plethora of issues, including insufficient identification of mental illness at intake and referrals; missed counseling appointments and group sessions; and inadequate monitoring of prisoners in mental-health crises.” Id. at 1197. Further, the shortage in correctional staffing inhibits the delivery of adequate mental-health care because it prevents ADOC from escorting inmates to their mental-health appointments; hinders correctional officers' ability to supervise mentally ill prisoners; and diminishes officers' ability to identify and refer potentially mentally ill prisoners for treatment. Id. at 1200-04. Correctional understaffing “also has a more direct impact on prisoners' mental health” in that “[t]he combination of overcrowding and understaffing leads to an increased level of violence” in ADOC facilities. Id. at 1200. In addition, the court found that the lack of both correctional and mental-health staffing results in inadequate monitoring of prisoners in segregation, and contributes to “a vicious cycle of isolation, inadequate treatment, and decompensation.” Id. at 1243-45.

         II. Legal Standard

          The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) provides that a “court shall not grant or approve any prospective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of a Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.” 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A). In conducting this ‘need-narrowness-intrusiveness' inquiry, a court is required to “give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system caused by the relief.” Id.

         “As this court has stated before, [prison officials in cases challenging prison conditions] should be given considerable deference in determining an appropriate remedy for the constitutional violations involved.” Laube v. Haley, 242 F.Supp.2d 1150, 1153 (M.D. Ala. 2003) (Thompson, J.) (citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 547-48 (1979)); see also Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 85 (1987) (“[F]ederal courts have ... reason to accord deference to the appropriate prison authorities.”).

         Nevertheless, courts retain a responsibility to remedy constitutional violations. See Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493, 511 (2011) (citing Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 687, n.9 (1978)). “Courts must be sensitive to the State's interest in punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation, as well as the need for deference to experienced and expert prison administrators faced with the difficult and dangerous task of housing large numbers of convicted criminals. Courts nevertheless must not shrink from their obligation to enforce the constitutional rights of all ‘persons, ' including prisoners. Courts may not allow constitutional violations to continue simply because a remedy would involve intrusion into the realm of prison administration.” Id. at 511. (quotation marks and citations omitted). Accordingly, the deference afforded prison administrators in remedying constitutional violations must not be “complete.” See King v. McCarty, 781 F.3d 889, 897 (7th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citing Plata, 563 U.S. at 511).

         III. Discussion

         A. The Defendants' Proposed Remedial Plan

         The defendants' proposed remedial plan has evolved in some respects during the course of the evidentiary hearing and oral argument. Accordingly, the court now sets out its understanding of the plan, including minor tweaks, which it today adopts.

         1. Correctional Staffing

          a. The Savages' Staffing Analyses.

         In order to determine how many officers are needed to address ADOC's correctional understaffing problem, the defendants have retained experts Margaret and Merle Savage to conduct comprehensive staffing analyses at each of ADOC's major facilities, with the exception of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.[1] By the time of the evidentiary hearing, the Savages had already completed preliminary analyses at three facilities: Bibb Correctional Facility, Donaldson Correctional Facility, and Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Center. According to the defendants' plan, the Savages are to complete final staffing analyses for all 15 major facilities except Tutwiler, as well as short- and long-term recommendations for all major facilities including Tutwiler, by May 1, 2018.[2]

         All parties agree that any dispute related to the Savages' recommendations should first be put before United States Magistrate Judge John Ott for mediation and that, if and when Judge Ott concludes that all or part of the dispute cannot be successfully mediated, any party may then put the dispute, to the extent it is not resolved, to United States Magistrate Judge Gray M. Borden for consideration pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, with allowable review, in turn, by this court pursuant to § 636. (The court, however, reserves the ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.