South Carolina prison agency, advocacy group reach agreement on inmate mental health treatment


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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina's prisons would hire more mental health specialists, create safer surroundings and offer more monitoring for mental illness among inmates, under a preliminary agreement with an advocacy group that was announced Thursday.

The state and the advocates have been in mediation since last year, when a judge sided with inmates and Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, which had sued the Department of Corrections in 2005. Their lawsuit alleged a lack of effective counseling and too much reliance on tactics like isolation and force to subdue mentally ill prisoners, all in violation of the Constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Michael Baxley chided the department for failing to screen new inmates for mental health problems, properly administer medication and prevent suicide.

"People are clearly dying at the Department of Corrections because they lack basic health care," Baxley said in court then. "What would you have the court do, sir? Would you have the court walk away and leave it as it is?"

At the time, the department appealed the ruling but said it had already improved mental health services for inmates and consulted with the state Department of Mental Health on evaluating Corrections' policies. The agency also said it was using $1 million in recurring funds to pay for more staff, training and specialized programming to hopefully reduce mentally ill inmates' time in isolation units due to disciplinary infractions.

With mediation still underway, Corrections started making other institutional changes on its own. Last year, Director Bryan Stirling told The Associated Press that 24 correctional officers had volunteered for specialized training on how to calm down unruly, mentally ill inmates without resorting to force or lockup.

In her executive budget released this week, Gov. Nikki Haley recommended more than $4 million in recurring support to expand Corrections' capacity to diagnose and treat mentally ill inmates, provide onsite medical services and establish remote supervision.

The Protection and Advocacy group has estimated that nearly 20 percent of South Carolina's prison inmates are mentally ill. Corrections officials, however, have placed that number at closer to 12 or 13 percent.

Documents released Thursday by Corrections officials enumerated $1.6 million in mental health-related projects, including the expansion of recreation yards for inmates in lockup and a multitude of new surveillance cameras so officers can monitor inmate safety. Other projects focus on replacing glass on cell doors with non-breakable material.

Corrections says it would seek millions of dollars over three years to hire dozens of new staff members to help do things like screen inmates for mental illness, administer medications and prevent suicide.

Stuart Andrews, an attorney for the inmates who sued, said some discussions are ongoing but that he was encouraged by the progress so far, particularly in efforts to fund needed changes.

"We are encouraged by the efforts in mediation over the past nine months and are hopeful that we'll be able to be able to settle the case with the department," he said.

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