What's happening in a lawsuit over medical care at Tutwiler Prison for Women may be a rare win-win in a system far more accustomed to lose-lose propositions.
A new deal between lawyers for Tutwiler inmates and the Department of Corrections calls for up to six years of reviews by a new monitor for the federal court. Under an earlier settlement, the state would have faced four more years of monitoring.
At the same time, inmates dropped a request for the prison system to be held in contempt of court, and they agreed not to file another contempt petition for two years.
While the state escapes the immediate threat of a contempt finding, it submits to an extra two years of monitoring. That's a fair enough trade, and it's not unreasonable.
The possibility of a contempt finding against a short-funded state agency always creates a dilemma: What should the punishment be? And how will the punishment improve the services provided by the agency? Fining a state agency that doesn't have the money to provide good services in the first place is counterproductive. But how else does the court force the agency to live up to its promises in these kinds of lawsuits?
That's been much more of a problem with the prison system than it should have been. But what's promising about this settlement is the way it encourages the Department of Corrections to make the needed changes to improve care provided to Tutwiler inmates.
For every quarterly audit in which the monitor finds the prison system is providing adequate medical care, the extra monitoring period will be shaved by three months. State officials who love to talk about freeing agencies from federal court oversight should take notice. Want to cut short the monitoring of Tutwiler? Provide inmates with proper care.
This is an important issue, and it's not about letting inmates live the life of Riley on the taxpayer's dime. The state has a constitutional duty to provide for inmates in its care, and it clearly has failed to do so. Among other things, prior monitoring reports found that questionable medical care had contributed to inmates' deaths.
This is one area the Department of Corrections should insist on getting right anyway. But the new settlement gives prison officials even more incentive to improve the care at Tutwiler.
To the extent they take advantage of it, both inmates and taxpayers will win.