State must move now to make prisons safer for mentally ill inmates

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 24, 2014 

One would anticipate that a shocking 45-page order from a circuit court judge would light a fire under the Department of Corrections to make improvements and ensure the safety of its mentally ill inmates. But that does not appear to have happened -- at least not yet.

"Evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the S.C. Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care," wrote Circuit Court Judge Michael Baxley. "Hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness."

Baxley -- who called the case the most troubling of the 70,000 he has handled in his 14 years on the bench -- ordered the department to draw up a detailed plan within 180 days to improve the department's mental illness programs and procedures.

Unfortunately for inmates, as well as taxpayers who pay for the state's prison system, there is no guarantee that this will happen. When questioned by the media, responses from the department lack any sense of urgency to do much more than appeal the case.

"We will exercise the right to appeal this order; however we will continue to improve our efforts to improve the health care for mental health inmates," wrote a department spokesman in response to questions from The State newspaper in Columbia. That includes, according to the spokesman, having the S.C. Department of Mental Health evaluate Corrections' mental health procedures and working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to improve officers' training and to expand a contract for additional psychiatrists.

This isn't good enough. No guarantee exists that these improvements will be made, much less in a timely fashion. Additionally, these efforts do not go far enough. As outlined by Baxley, much more is needed to guarantee our prisons are humane places where the rights -- even the very lives -- of inmates are not dismissed.

We urge the General Assembly to step in and hold its department accountable, requiring the improvements be a priority and, if necessary, providing additional state funding. These changes should happen even if the department appeals the ruling.

Certainly, the upkeep of inmates is not a top priority for legislatures, working to improve the state's public schools, upgrade crumbling roads and bridges and create more high-paying jobs. But prisons must be given their due diligence, particularly when mass abuses are revealed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haley has been quiet on the issue, only saying that many of the judge's findings are outdated. But mental health advocates disagree, saying the judge's opinions accurately reflect the current state of a prison system that, as Baxley put it, is "understaffed, underfunded and inadequate."

There is some reason to be hopeful. State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, told The State newspaper that he met with Corrections director Bryan Stirling and is convinced that Corrections is shifting away from punitive measures for mentally ill prisoners when they don't behave.

Fair added that the legislature approved an additional $1 million for mental health programs in prisons and may be willing to give more this year to the perennially under-funded department.

The General Assembly must get more involved. Otherwise, our troubled prison system will be denied much-needed reforms to ensure the proper treatment and care of inmates who may soon be back in our communities.

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