Leon Lott: Mistreating mentally ill inmates endangers public

February 16, 2014 

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Two months ago, an escaped mentally ill inmate was walking down the street, blocking traffic. I stopped, and the next thing I knew he started accusing me of killing his mother. Then he attacked me. Fortunately, I was able to subdue him, and we returned him to prison.

Mental illness is not a crime, and the vast majority of people with mental illness are not dangerous. People whose mental illness goes untreated, however, may become dangerous. Tragic headlines around the country too often provide evidence of that fact.

It is against this background that S.C. Circuit Judge Michael Baxley recently found that mentally ill inmates in S.C. prisons receive grossly inadequate treatment. His 45-page order sets forth in shocking detail the deficiencies in the Department of Corrections’ mental health system.

Based on recent evidence, Judge Baxley found that many inmates with serious mental illness are never even identified by the department. Those who are identified and placed on the mental health caseload receive substandard treatment, due largely to an insufficient number of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. Undertrained correctional officers use excessive force far more frequently on mentally ill inmates than on those without mental illness. According to Judge Baxley, inmates in mental health crisis have been “routinely placed” naked in shower stalls and other inappropriate settings for hours or days at a time.

Cruel and unusual punishment comes in many forms, and the non-treatment of those with mental illness is one. Yet, while Judge Baxley’s order raises serious constitutional and moral concerns, it also raises serious concerns for public safety.

S.C. prisons, like local correctional facilities, are warehouses for those serving time. Those with mental illness are just stored away until they are released. Judge Baxley documents examples of mentally ill inmates spending years in solitary confinement under filthy and dehumanizing conditions.

People either get better or get worse in prison. Inmates with serious mental illness who are warehoused for years in appalling conditions without effective treatment are likely to get worse. Most of those inmates eventually are released. Then local law enforcement, such as the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, and the community have to deal with them on a revolving basis.

Judge Baxley’s order corroborates investigative findings over the years by groups such as the Department of Mental Health, a legislatively created committee and the U.S. Department of Justice. Given this history, I question the Department of Corrections’ decision to appeal he order, dragging out the legal process and costs for years to come.

There have been enough studies, reports and litigation. It is time now, for the sake of the inmates and the sake of the public, to fix the problem.

Leon Lott

Richland County Sheriff

Columbia

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