Department of Corrections reaches settlement regarding mentally ill inmates

Published: Jun. 1, 2016 at 2:22 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 1, 2016 at 8:30 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Corrections has reached a settlement regarding the treatment of inmates who suffer from mental illness.

The settlement comes after two years of negotiations involving legal action filed against the Department of Corrections over the way mentally ill inmates are treated. In 2014, a circuit judge determined the department's treatment of inmates with mental illness as unconstitutional.

A preliminary agreement between SCDC and mental health advocates was reached in 2015. If approved, the agreement would end a class-action lawsuit filed on the behalf of inmates by Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc.

"For years we met with stone cold resistance to anything resembling fairness and justice," said Executive Director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Gloria Prevost. "It was only after Governor Haley appointed Bryan Stirling SCDC Director that progress was made. Our many discussions convinced us that the new leadership genuinely desired to do the right thing."

"This settlement marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another with changes in culture, policy and procedure at SCDC. We will continue the movement towards rehabilitation and comprehensive care for a safer South Carolina," added Bryan P. Stirling, Director of SCDC.

"This is a long-needed agreement whose implementation can end a dark chapter in South Carolina history. Offenders with serious mental illnesses were subjected to abject brutality and neglect, much of which was captured on video and shocked the nation when shown in open court," Prevost said.

Talks started in 2014, when a judge sided with inmates who sued in 2005. They said violations included a lack of effective counseling and too much use of isolation and force to subdue mentally ill prisoners.

The Department of Corrections says an estimated 3,500 inmates are "severely mentally ill." Since the lawsuit was filed, the DOC changed several policies and improved training for corrections personnel for dealing with inmates who suffer from mental illness.

"While we are extremely pleased that the case is on its way to resolution, we continue to regret that the state fought this case 'tooth and nail,' wasting resources that could have been used to provide treatment for our clients," Prevost said.

SCDC has four years to implement the changes.

The department estimates it will cost an estimated $1.7 million for facility upgrades and $7 million annually for mental health staffing, which is being phased in over three years.

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