COLUMBIA — A Columbia-based advocacy group that sued South Carolina’s prisons agency over the care of mentally ill inmates is finally getting its day in court.
Circuit Court Judge Michael Baxley is expected to begin hearing arguments today in the case that accuses the Corrections Department of subjecting mentally ill inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.
Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities sued the agency in 2005, saying that mentally ill inmates were severely punished for disciplinary infractions and were not given enough access to psychiatric care.
The advocacy group sued along with four mentally ill South Carolina inmates. One man, according to court papers, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and “believes that at night, while he is sleeping, doctors come into his cell and perform surgery on him.” Instead of being placed at the prison system’s sole psychiatric hospital, attorneys for the group wrote, the man “has lived for most of the last sixteen years in an SCDC lock-up unit,” where he is kept alone in a cell nearly 24 hours a day and sees a counselor only once a month.
Protection and Advocacy said it sued on behalf of all of South Carolina’s mentally ill inmates, a number the group estimated is as many as 4,400, or about 19 percent of the state’s inmate population. Those inmates, according to the group, spend an inordinate amount of time in solitary confinement when compared to other inmates. Studying disciplinary records for 110 mentally ill inmates, the group said nearly all of them – 98 percent – spent more than a year in solitary confinement, while 20 percent were in solitary for more than five years. Others lost visitation and phone privileges for years on end after being found guilty of disciplinary infractions like masturbation or threatening other inmates.
The group said it based its suit on recommendations from several reports on the prison system’s mental health care, including one psychiatrist’s conclusion that “the system is currently in crisis and immediate efforts to rectify the inadequate resource provision to the mental health system must be undertaken.”
Among his recommendations, Dr. Raymond Patterson said the prison agency should hire more mental health nurses and doctors and come up with better programs for inmates. In 2000, a legislative committee also recommended hiring more staff.
“For years the Defendants have known their system of providing medical treatment for mentally ill inmates was in a state of crisis, a state exacerbated in recent years by inadequate funding for the Department,” the group argued.
Corrections officials declined to discuss the lawsuit. In court papers, attorneys for the agency denied claims that mentally ill inmates’ constitutional rights had been violated. They also noted that the Corrections Department was under no legal obligation to implement any of the recommendations from the reports cited in the lawsuit.
Noting that all new inmates are screened for mental health issues within 30 days of arriving at the state’s prisons, the agency also denied that mentally ill inmates were punished any differently than other prisoners. Even when in solitary confinement, the agency’s attorneys wrote, inmates receive visits from mental health specialists. They attorneys dismissed claims that as many as 4,400 of the state’s inmates are mentally ill, saying they were “speculative and irrelevant.”
“Mentally ill inmates, like other inmates, are disciplined for conduct that warrants discipline, but that such inmates are also treated for mental health problems,” Corrections’ attorneys wrote.
Officials estimate the trial could last a month.