Judge to mull whether S. Carolina prisons shirked responsibilities for inmate mental health

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COLUMBIA — Attorneys for South Carolina prisons say they are doing the best they can to treat mentally ill prisoners with the limited money they get from lawmakers.

But advocates for the mentally ill inmates said in closing arguments in their 7-year-old lawsuit that they are severely punished for disciplinary infractions and have not been given enough access to psychiatric care.

Friday’s arguments wrapped up a six-week trial for an independent nonprofit group called Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities.

It and four mentally ill inmates sued the Corrections Department in 2005.

One of the inmates suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and said he was kept for years in an isolation cell, seeing a counselor only once a month.

Corrections officials have disputed the claims, denying that any inmates’ constitutional rights were violated and noting that the Corrections Department was under no legal obligation to implement any of the recommendations from reports cited in the lawsuit against the agency.

On Friday, an attorney for the Corrections Department argued it should not be up to a judge to determine how a state agency handles its inmates after they have been sentenced, citing the separation of powers.

“It’s an issue of public policy. It’s not an issue for the courts,” Andrew Lindemann said, adding that the agency is trying very hard to make due with limited state funding. “They’re trying and doing their very best with the limited resources provided to them by the members of the General Assembly.”

Lindemann also said the advocacy group showed videos of extreme circumstances, such as pepper spray being used on inmates, not normal ones.

Dan Westbrook, an attorney for the advocacy group, argued during his closing that state prison officials are undercounting the number of mentally ill inmates in their care, and the ones that have been identified aren’t receiving adequate treatment.

“Someone is obviously falling through the cracks,” Westbrook said.

Protection & Advocacy estimates nearly 20 percent of South Carolina’s prison inmates are mentally ill. Corrections officials, however, place that number at closer to 12 or 13 percent, a figure Westbrook said is out of line with other states.

“There’s certainly no reason to believe that South Carolinians have a higher degree of sanity than inmates in the other 49 states,” Westbrook said.

Westbrook also contended that conditions in the state’s prisoner isolation cells are inhumane, saying inmates in those cells don’t receive adequate mental health treatment, if any.

Westbrook also decried the Corrections Department’s overall approach to mental health care, saying the department is woefully low on psychiatrists and psychologists and adding that guards don’t make adequate checks on inmates who are considered to be suicide risks.

It could be several weeks before Judge Michael Baxley issues his ruling.


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