Opinion Extra

Who’s to blame for prison killings? Look in the mirror

The horrific deaths of John King, Jason Kelley, Jimmy Ham and William Scruggs at the Kirkland Correctional Institute highlight the gaping holes in our treatment of mental illness. The four men, who resided in a special dorm for those struggling with psychiatric disorders, were killed by two other inmates, allegedly because they were a “nuisance.”

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As a clinical social worker who worked in mental health for more than 30 years, I know that people experiencing psychosis can be challenging. When responding to auditory hallucinations, they can become loud and agitated. They may pace, or invade the personal space of others. They may voice paranoid thoughts or speak incoherently. If they’re unable to sleep, these symptoms worsen at night.

I also know these symptoms require special care.

The victims should have been somewhere that offered treatment and safety. Now they are dead.

The victims were housed in a dorm with two convicted killers who had the motivation, will and, it turns out, capacity to plan and carry out four executions. The victims should have been somewhere that offered treatment and safety. Now they are dead.

Should we blame the Department of Corrections? Under the direction of Bryan Stirling, the agency has made strides in its treatment of people with mental illness — but years and years of underfunding, poor treatment options and inadequate staffing cannot be quickly undone. While the agency is working hard at recruitment, the average correctional officer in Columbia starts at a salary $6,000 lower than our city police. And working conditions can be tense and dangerous. Without the needed number of correctional officers, inmates can’t be closely monitored. Nor can conflict be deescalated before violence erupts — violence like the killings of these four men.

We have systematically criminalized mental illness.

Perhaps the Department of Mental Health is at fault. If these men had received appropriate treatment, they may not have committed their crimes, and they may not have ended up in prison.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, we have systematically criminalized mental illness. Individuals with serious psychiatric disorders are 10 times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a hospital bed. Of course, South Carolina closed its largest state hospital decades ago, and community mental health treatment is hindered by staff shortages, high caseloads and fewer resources for inpatient care.

How do we blame them, when we’ve given them marching orders to reduce taxes?

Then let’s blame the General Assembly: Legislators are the ones who continually expect agencies to provide needed services without enough funding to retain staff, to provide safe working conditions or to properly treat mental illnesses.

But how do we blame them, when we’ve given them marching orders to reduce taxes? Legislators who advocate for serious, meaningful changes to our prison or mental health systems face the risk of losing their seats.

What it comes down to is this: John King, Jason Kelley, Jimmy Ham and William Scruggs were killed by Jacob Philip and Denver Simmons, but the fault doesn’t lie just with them. It belongs to us, too. Until we decide that people struggling with mental illnesses deserve safe, humane treatment, and we are willing to fund it, we can expect more incidents like this.

Maybe it’s time to send new marching orders to our legislators — even if it means paying a few additional tax dollars.

Ms. Damron is executive director of the S.C. chapter of the National Association of Social Workers; contact her at cdamron@scnasw.org.

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