Crime & Courts

S.C. prison system to notify 20,000 inmates of pending mental illness settlement

The Lee Correctional Institution
The Lee Correctional Institution

Over the next five weeks, officials at the S.C. Department of Corrections will conduct a massive outreach to make sure all inmates in the state prison system are notified of a pending landmark proposed settlement in a lawsuit over how mentally ill inmates are treated.

The outreach in the longstanding, class action lawsuit was approved by state Judge Robert Hood at a Tuesday hearing at the Richland County courthouse. Hood gave lawyers until Aug. 19 to report back to him.

Of the approximately 20,000 inmates in South Carolina’s 22 institutions, approximately 3,500 are estimated to have mental illnesses that will qualify for the state prison system’s new and sharply upgraded mental health care program.

The schedule to notify inmates was jointly agreed to by S.C. corrections director Bryan Stirling as well as Stuart Andrews and Dan Westbrook, lawyers for the disabled rights group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. Eleven years ago, that group sued the department, seeking better treatment for mentally ill prisoners.

Under the rules of class action lawsuits, members of the class can review the proposed settlement and make comments. Arrangements have been made to notify even inmates in solitary confinement as well as to read the agreement to inmates who cannot read.

“We want members of the class to review this in detail, and this (notification) will allow them that chance,” Andrews said following the hearing.

If inmates raise no major concerns, lawyers will ask Hood on Aug. 19 to issue an order giving final approval to the proposed settlement.

Under the proposed settlement, announced in June, the department has agreed to $1.7 million for facilities upgrades plus another $7 million annually to add some 70 workers over three years. The settlement also includes plans for an independent monitor and increased training for corrections staff who deal with mentally ill inmates. The department has four years to implement the changes.

“It’s a good day for everybody. Settlement is always a good resolution for a lawsuit,” said Stirling after the hearing. He was accompanied by Roy Laney, a Columbia attorney.

“This is a good resolution for folks to get the help they need,” Stirling said. Mentally ill inmates who have been diagnosed and getting the right treatment, including therapy and medication, will be less likely like to return to prison, he said.

“Hopefully, they will get the help they need and go on and lead stable and productive lives.”