Judge rules against Corrections Dept. in inmate mental health suit

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A judge has ruled against the South Carolina Department of Corrections in a 2005 lawsuit alleging the violation of the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Baxley issued the ruling early Wednesday morning, outlining six major findings from the case.

According to the ruling, SCDC is "severely understaffed" and mentally ill inmates are "exposed to a disproportionate use of force and segregation."

The ruling also says the evidence shows the department does not maintain accurate and complete treatment records, methods to detect mentally ill inmates are "ineffective", administration of medications is "inadequately supervised and evaluated", and the policies regarding suicide prevention and crisis intervention are "inadequate and have resulted in the unnecessary loss of life among seriously mentally ill inmates."

The lawsuit accused the Corrections Department of violating the rights of mentally ill inmates. The actual suit said inmates were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by being severely punished for disciplinary infractions.

The plaintiffs said thousands of mentally ill inmates are not being provided services they need, suggesting some may have died as a result.

The suit was brought by the Columbia-based group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities.

Attorneys for the Corrections Deparment said before the trial there may have been occasional mistakes in the way prisons handle mentally ill inmates, but those problems did not amount to a systemic failure.

The ruling disagreed.

"As a society, and as citizen jurors and judges make decisions that send people to prison, we have the reasonable expectation that those in prison – even though it is prison – will have their basic health needs met by the state that imprisons them. And this includes mental health. The evidence in this case has shown that expectation to be misplaced in many instances," said the ruling.

Gloria Prevost, the leader of the advocacy group, said in a statement she was "pleased" by the ruling.

"As the judge pointed out, the evidence is overwhelming that the Department of Corrections has known for over a decade that its system exposes seriously mentally ill inmates to a substantial risk of serious harm," said Prevost. "Inmates with serious mental health illnesses are dying needlessly and treated inhumanely. We want the state to provide the resources to allow the Department of Corrections to implement meaningful change and the Department to be fully committed to meeting the medical needs of inmates with serious mental illness."

The Corrections Department also released a statement, saying they planned to appeal the ruling.

"Mental health is not just a corrections' problem, it's a national problem that all sectors of society are working to address," said the statement.

Copyright 2014 WIS. The Associated Press contributed to the is report. All rights reserved.