Last week, an Alabama state prisoner who had testified in an ongoing federal trial over the state of mental health care in state prisons was found dead, apparently of suicide. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections, he was found unresponsive, hanging from a piece of cloth in his cell.
The first inmate to be called to the witness stand in the class-action lawsuit, 24-year-old Jamie Wallace told a federal courtroom in Montgomery earlier this month that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and ADHD. Wallace was serving a 25-year-sentence after pleading guilty to the murder of his mother and the attempted murder of his grandmother in 2009. Sixteen years old at the time, he had been released from a mental hospital on new medication just a few weeks before.
The inmates in the case are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. Maria Morris, one of the SPLC attorneys representing inmates, told AL.com that Wallace was in a “stabilization unit,” the highest level of care the Alabama Department of Corrections has, at the time of his death. “It’s not clear why he had access to a sheet with which to hang himself,” Morris said. ADOC is investigating the incident.
Wallace’s death “is a tragedy that could have been avoided,” Morris said in a later statement. “We brought this case, and are in court today, to try to protect people like Jamie Wallace who are enduring unconstitutional treatment and horrible indifference to their needs. Those with mental health issues deserve adequate treatment, not to be warehoused in prisons where mental health services are wholly inadequate.” In October, the Department of Justice announced a statewide investigation into violence, rape, and overcrowding in Alabama men’s prisons.
Corrections officer allegedly told Jamie Wallace, ‘You want to kill yourself? Here you go – do it with this’
In a dispatch from the non-jury trial sent just days before Wallace’s death at the Bullock County Correctional Facility on Dec. 15, the SPLC summarized his testimony the week before:
“J.W. testified about the mental health treatment he received, his medication, psychotherapy and his experiences in segregation. J.W. has cut himself multiple times with razors and improvised blades – like the sharpened top of a Skoal can – both on his arm and on his neck. He showed Judge Thompson scars from each. In segregation, J.W. testified that there’s nothing he can do ‘but pace the floor.’”
At one point, Wallace testified, a corrections officer offered him a razor.
“Having worked with Jamie over the last few months, I came to understand what the ADOC apparently never did,” Lisa Borden, whose law firm, Baker Donelson, also represents plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. “Jamie was desperate for help with the mental illnesses that drove him to repeatedly hurt himself and to say that he wanted to die, in many ways, over the last several years. Rather than prompting them to do everything that could have done to provide him with the treatment he needed, his many cries for help were treated as malingering.”
The state’s attorneys, Borden said, “went to great lengths to try to portray his suicide attempts as faking. It is tragic and devastating that it took a fatal hanging to perhaps finally make it clear that he wasn’t just faking. Jamie’s case is emblematic of the utter neglect and mistreatment of people with serious mental illness in ADOC prisons. Even with all of the issues he faced, Jamie knew that and wanted to make a difference. I am very saddened by his death, but proud that he knew he had done something important and lasting.”
Bob Horton, a spokesman for Alabama Department of Corrections, attributed the delay between the discovery of Wallace’s body and the public disclosure of his death to “next of kin notification.”
“The inmate’s father, who is listed as the primary next of kin, died in July and inmate’s grandfather died in February according to public records,” Horton wrote in an email to Jezebel. “Wallace’s stepmother could not be located and the inmate’s remains have not been claimed.”
A group of Alabama prisoners with the Free Alabama Movement and Unheard Voices discuss this and other suicides. They’re skeptical. “It was ruled by whom that it was a suicide?” asks Swift Justice. “This is what they do.” The authorities justify both retaliating against a prisoner with the courage to testify in court or ignoring his suicide attempts by reasoning: “You are a witness against us. What do we care about you?” So even if they don’t kill a suicidal prisoner who speaks out, they let him die.