Lawyers question prison psychiatrist in mental health case


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Attorneys representing Alabama prison officials have questioned the findings of the chief psychiatrist of the Ohio prison system, who concluded that Alabama fails to spot mental illness in many inmates and lacks the staff to effectively treat those who are diagnosed.

The Department of Corrections disputes the findings of Dr. Kathryn Burns, who testified Monday as an expert witness on behalf of inmates that have accused the state of failing to provide them with adequate mental health care, Al.com reported (http://bit.ly/2hws2BJ).

During cross-examination, lawyers for DOC officials questioned Burns about the depth of research she did to reach her findings.

Burns visited nine of Alabama’s 16 prisons, interviewed 77 inmates and briefly talked to 25 other inmates, her report said.

Mitesh Shah, a lawyer who is representing DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, asked Burns whether that is an adequate sample size to reach conclusions about the prison system. She said it was.

The fact that just 15 percent of Alabama prisoners are on the mental health caseload indicates that some mentally ill inmates are not being diagnosed, Burns said. Based on her work at other prison systems, 25 percent to 30 percent of inmates are mentally ill.

Shah questioned Burns about an article on the prevalence of mental illness in prisons that indicated Alabama’s 15 percent figure is consistent with some studies.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who is conducting the non-jury trial, said the meaning of the article wasn’t clear to him and questioned its value for the case.

Dunn was scheduled to testify on Wednesday, but his testimony has been postponed until January, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing the inmates.