COLUMBIA, SC — A freshman S.C. senator let a powerful veteran senator know Thursday that he will ask questions about how mentally ill inmates are treated in state prisons – even if asked not to.
The scene was a Senate Corrections and Penology Committee hearing called to discuss the recommendation that acting corrections director Bryan Stirling be named permanent director.
As the hearing began, committee chairman Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, asked senators not to question Stirling about a recent court ruling by S.C. Judge Michael Baxley that found that seriously mentally ill inmates had died inside state prisons because of inhumane treatment. Stirling could answer questions later “one-on-one,” Fair said.
“It’s just not wise for us to talk about that circumstance,” Fair, who has spent 30 years in the Legislature, said as the meeting began.
But Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, a lawyer in office for five months, wasn’t going to be muzzled about what he considered a major issue under Stirling’s jurisdiction.
“With all due to respect to the chair’s opening comments, I can’t sit here in good conscience and not ask you about the disturbing 40-odd page order by Judge Baxley,” Kimpson told Stirling. Kimpson’s tone was polite but firm.
In January, Baxley ruled that treatment given S.C. prison inmates suffering serious mental illness is so substandard that it’s unconstitutional and threatens the mental health of inmates. He ruled the department had known about such treatment for years and failed to correct it, putting “hundreds ... at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.”
The Corrections Department has asked the judge to reconsider and amend his ruling.
Ignoring Fair’s request, Kimpson first asked Stirling about Baxley’s concern about how Corrections Department identifies mentally ill inmates.
Stirling replied that Corrections is now working with the University of South Carolina and a national expert “to make that process better.”
When Kimpson asked about another Baxley concern – the practice of putting mentally inmates in solitary confinement – Stirling replied that the department is studying how to do better but added sometimes segregating them is “the only alternative we have.”
Fair then told Kimpson to stop.
“This line of interrogation is not appropriate for this committee,” Fair said.
Kimpson – calmly, a small smile playing on his face – replied, “Mr. Chairman, I must object to your characterization of my questions, calling them ‘interrogation.’ Mr. Stirling is a lawyer.... . It is well documented that the department had knowledge of the cruel and unusual punishment that has been going on.”
Kimpson then added he objected to the state spending money to appeal Baxley’s order, especially when one of Corrections’ arguments has already been discredited – the argument that the courts don’t have the authority to order changes in the corrections system.
“I do believe the courts should be in a position to protect the rights of people we incarcerate.”
Earlier, before Kimpson questioned him, Stirling volunteered that he has written the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the lawsuit to ask them to “put the appeal on hold for a little while” and sit down in formal mediation talks.
“There are some things we probably can agree on, and some things – unless the General Assembly is going to give us a significant amount of money – we are not going to be able to immediately. But we might as well do what we can together and worry about what we can’t later,” Stirling said.
At the end of the meeting, the half dozen or so senators present voted to recommend Stirling for confirmation. A former member of the S.C. attorney general’s and governor’s staff, he enjoys a good reputation as someone who is competent, easy to work with and accessible, members said.
Attorneys for the lawsuit plaintiffs said later they will respond soon to Stirling’s request for mediation.
The Senate is likely to confirm Stirling next week.