January 16, 2014

Editorial: SC should improve treatment of mentally ill inmates, not appeal judge’s order

SADLY, THERE is little surprising about a judge’s ruling that the state of South Carolina long has treated mentally ill inmates poorly and must clean up its act.

SADLY, THERE is little surprising about a judge’s ruling that the state of South Carolina long has treated mentally ill inmates poorly and must clean up its act.

For years, our state’s “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality led to inexcusable neglect, as legislators passed laws that increased the inmate population without providing adequate funding to help the Department of Corrections deal with overcrowding, rehabilitation, inmate care and other critical elements of its mission. While inmates are convicted of crimes, the state is responsible for providing an adequate level of mental and health care to those in its custody.

The neglect led to a 2005 lawsuit seeking to compel the state to make improvements. Last week, Judge Michael Baxley ruled that the treatment given to S.C. inmates suffering serious mental illness is so substandard that it’s unconstitutional.

Judge Baxley, who called the lawsuit “the most troubling” he has handled in his 14 years on the bench, wrote that evidence proved that inmates have died for “lack of basic mental health care.”

“Hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness,” he wrote. He cited specific cases to illustrate that the prison system is “flawed in many respects, understaffed, underfunded and inadequate.”

The judge determined that the Department of Corrections has known for more than a decade that its mental health program is deficient and places mentally ill inmates at “substantial risk of serious harm.” He has given Corrections six months to craft a plan to make improvements.

The agency has said it will appeal. But Gov. Nikki Haley should direct it to stand down. Instead, the department, Gov. Haley and the Legislature should focus on formulating a plan to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. They should implement necessary procedures to improve care and pass any laws needed to facilitate improvements. It might even require more funding.

But to appeal this ruling is to be in denial of years of neglect in our state’s prisons. And it would be a waste of tax dollars.

Corrections officials and Gov. Haley said things have improved and that the myriad problems cited in the judge’s order are outdated. While we don’t doubt some improvements have been made, it’s hard to imagine that enough changes have been made considering the neglect Corrections experienced for much of the past decade and a half. While the agency has fared a little better lately, it never has been adequately funded and always has been woefully understaffed. It endured budget cuts and ran deficits for much of the early and mid-2000s, including a particularly tough stretch of reductions from 1999 to 2003.

If the state indeed has made progress in caring for the mentally ill as it has attempted to dig out of the substantial hole it was in, officials should include that information as part of their report to Judge Baxley, along with a plan for further improvements. Among other things, the judge wrote that the state’s plan must include additional staff and better-trained staff.

For so long, the Legislature lacked the political will to provide more funding or reduce prison populations to help Corrections fulfill its mission. But in 2010, lawmakers instituted sentencing reform that has helped reduce population and save money — dollars that could help improve care for mentally ill inmates.

Instead of fighting Judge Baxley’s ruling, state officials should embrace this as yet another opportunity to improve the way our prisons operate.

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