An estimated 3,500 mentally ill inmates in the S.C. Department of Corrections could see sharply upgraded treatment as the result of a tentative agreement reached after 11 years of contentious litigation and negotiations.
The agreement in the long-running class action lawsuit is between the South Carolina-based Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc. and the Department of Corrections, according to a joint news release Wednesday from both parties.
The settlement commits the state to spend about $1.7 million in one-time money for facilities upgrades at the department’s mental health units, with another $7 million annually to add some 70 workers. The $7 million increase, which also includes increased staff training, will be phased in over three years and includes some pay increases for underpaid current employees. The money for the second year’s staffing and training upgrades was in the budget passed by the state Legislature on Wednesday.
Major features of the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by a judge, include:
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▪ An independent process to monitor implementation of the plan, which includes increased training for corrections staff who deal with inmates with serious mental illnesses.
▪ Develop a screening and evaluation program to identify inmates in need of mental health care.
▪ Develop a program that ends isolating inmates who are going through mental health crises and adopts national standards in dealing with mentally troubled inmates.
▪ Institute proper medication protocols for mentally ill prisoners and keep accurate records
▪ Begin a program to identify, treat and supervise inmates who might be suicidal.
“This is, possibly, an historic day for justice, one we have been seeking for a decade,” Gloria Prevost, executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc., said in a prepared statement. “For years we met with stone cold resistance to anything resembling fairness and justice. It was only after Governor Haley appointed Bryan Stirling SCDC director that progress was made. Our many discussions convinced us that the new leadership genuinely desired to do the right thing.”
Bryan P. Stirling, prison director, acknowledged the change in a prepared statement.
“This settlement marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another with changes in culture, policy and procedure at SCDC. We will continue the movement towards rehabilitation and comprehensive care for a safer South Carolina,” he said.
The agreement establishes measurements that have strict timetables and will be supervised by a panel of independent national experts. The test for satisfaction of the standards is that SCDC would have to achieve and maintain compliance with each component of the plan for at least 18 months.
SCDC will have four years to implement the remedial guidelines.
“This is a critical agreement whose implementation can end a dark chapter in South Carolina history in which offenders with serious mental illnesses were subjected to abject brutality and neglect, much of which was captured on video and shocked the nation when shown in open court,” a news release approved by the parties said.
Wednesday’s announcement comes more than two years after S.C. Judge Michael Baxley, after a non-jury trial, found the state Department of Corrections was so substandard in treating mentally ill inmates that the treatment was unconstitutional and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
“Evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the S.C. Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care,” Baxley wrote in his 45-page order, filed in January 2014.
Baxley, of Hartsville, called the lawsuit “the most troubling” of the 70,000 cases he has handled in his 14 years on the bench.
“Hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness,” wrote Baxley. He cited numerous individual cases as evidence of “a system that is inherently flawed in many respects, understaffed, underfunded and inadequate.”
Baxley ordered the opposing sides to come up with a plan rather than continuing to fight in court. He found that evidence in the case showed that for more than 10 years, the state prison system has known “its mental health program is systemically deficient and exposes seriously mentally ill inmates to a substantial risk of serious harm.”
The settlement had its origins in a class action lawsuit filed in 2005 in circuit court in Richland County. Several prison inmates – identified only by their initials – as well as Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities brought the lawsuit.
It could not be learned Wednesday how much taxpayer money was spent fighting the lawsuit. Prison officials hired the Columbia law firm of Davidson & Lindemann to defend the agency. Agency private lawyers had contended at trial that any abuses cited by the plaintiffs were extreme and that the court did not have the authority to tell the state prison system what to do.
The lawsuit did not seek damages, but only to force the state prison department to develop and fund a “reasonable and adequate system for the mental health care of inmates suffering from mental illness,” according to a complaint in the case.
The case is apparently the most sweeping legal victory for inmates’ rights in South Carolina since the case of inmate Gary Wayne Nelson vs. Leeke in the early 1980s.
The mental illness case actually began in 2002, when Nelson Mullins lawyers were approached by the Protection and Advocacy group and the Death Penalty Resources Center, both of which had clients suffering from mental illness who were in the prison system.