Corrections czar Stirling explains why settlement is good
A settlement in the long-running lawsuit seeking to improve conditions for South Carolina’s estimated 3,500 mentally ill prison inmates is now on its way to the state Supreme Court for final approval.
The plan accepted Monday by Circuit Judge Robert Hood is a recommendation, but both sides in the lawsuit said after a hearing in Richland County courts that they anticipate speedy approval from the top court.
“A lot of hard work went into this,” said S.C. Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling, noting that much work still remains before all changes are in place to make sure mentally ill inmates are diagnosed and treated.
The suit was brought in 2005 by three inmates and the group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. Columbia law firm Nelson Mullins donated services of two lawyers, Stuart Andrews and Dan Westbrook, to handle the case for the inmates. The lawsuit turned up numerous abuses.
The case cleared a big hurdle in 2014 when Circuit Judge Michael Baxley ruled the treatment given inmates suffering serious mental illness was substandard. Inmates died for want of basic mental health care, Baxley found.
Under a settlement reached in June, corrections officials agreed to spend $1.7 million for facility upgrades plus another $7 million annually to add some 70 mental health staffers over three years. The settlement includes plans for an independent monitor and increased training for corrections staff who deal with mentally ill inmates.
Correction officials have four years to make the changes.
Stirling said 90 percent of the department’s inmates are released within five years. Getting mentally ill inmates diagnosed and treated while in prison helps prevent those inmates from returning to prison after they are released, he said.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Gloria Prevost, executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. “We appreciate being able to work with Corrections in mediation over the last two years. It’s been a hard struggle.”
Hood praised the lawyers and officials for reaching a settlement.
Inmates have serious mental health issues, Hood said.
“We as a society have a responsibility to take care of them while they are incarcerated,” he said.