June 4, 2014

Mentally ill prisoners a priority, Richland jail committee says

Study after brutal 2013 beating prompts jail committee to focus on mental health issues at jail.

A special Richland County Council committee reviewing results of a $100,000 study of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center decided Thursday to focus first on a handful of key issues to make the facility better, including low guard pay, converting its paper records system to digital and building and funding a special unit for the severely mentally ill.

Improving training for corrections officers who deal with mentally ill prisoners and implementing a system that allows a psychiatrist to confer by a video linkup with inmates were issues also given priority by the committee, which met at the County Administration Building along Harden Street downtown.

“Today’s meeting was the initial step to let us see what we need to address,” said committee chairman Seth Rose, a County Council member, commenting on how the committee will respond to the hundreds of findings and issues raised in a 104-page jail study made public last month.

The study, by the New York jail consulting firm of Pulitzer/Bogard, was in response to publicity over a jail guard’s brutal 2013 beating of a mentally ill, homeless man who was in a unit for violent inmates. The homeless man almost died. The jail guard, Robin Smith, was fired and was recently sentenced to two years in federal prison for violating the man’s civil rights.

During the meeting, no one referred to that beating, in which the homeless man, Robert Sweeper, went without medical treatment for several days before EMTs were notified to take him to a hospital.

But the extent to which committee members discussed mental health related issues Tuesday left little doubt that without the Sweeper incident, there would have been be no study and no wide-ranging discussion of how to improve conditions for the mentally ill.

“This was a situation so alarming, and so unacceptable, that we commissioned a study of the highest level,” Rose said after the meeting.

About one-third – or almost 300 – of the jail’s average daily inmate population of 890 inmates – suffer some form of mental illness. Of that almost 300, almost 20 need to be housed in a special unit where they can be safe from other inmates and receive specialized psychiatric treatment, Alvin S. Glenn administrator Ronaldo Myers said.

Myers, who was at the meeting, said he will let the committee know how much it will cost to build and operate a special unit for 30 severely mentally ill inmates – a number that should take care of future needs. He told a reporter after the meeting that a such a building might cost $2 million to $3 million, but another significant and now unknown cost is how much the jail will need to pay annually for the trained psychiatric staff such a facility would need.

Committee members said they will meet in several weeks to:

• Hear a report from assistant county administrator Warren Harley on how much money is needed to increase corrections officers’ pay. Currently, guards are paid $8,000 to $9,000 a year less than their counterparts at jails of similar size such as Lexington County’s, officials said. Guards have the same law enforcement training as do Columbia police and Richland County Sheriff’s deputies, and often quit their jobs as soon as they can to get a better-paying law enforcement job.
• Hear about progress on a proposal by committee and councilman Greg Pearce to launch a program of video psychiatric consultations with prisoners. Pearce said the Medical University of South Carolina and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, back his proposal.
• Hear a report from Myers on the cost of converting the jail’s current paper documentation system to digital.
• Discuss how to speed up the release of inmates jailed for nonviolent offenses for which they don’t have to post a bond. Currently, the bureaucratic process of getting out of jail can last four to six hours after a judge says a prisoner is free to leave.

Later this summer, the committee is expected to start making specific recommendations to County Council, which will have the final say over which improvements will be implemented. Myers said he has already begun to implement some suggestions in the Pulitzer/Bogard study.

The jail, which has a $20 million annual budget, is run by the Richland County government, not the county Sheriff’s Department as in many counties. For years, Alvin S. Glenn has been plagued by understaffing and low pay for corrections officers.

But in recent years, the jail has housed increasing numbers of mentally troubled prisoners. This mirrors a national trend, where many states have cut back services to the mentally ill. Many of those people are now winding up in hospital emergency rooms and local jails.

The jail, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, is seven miles southeast of Columbia, off Bluff Road on the way to the Congaree National Park.

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