Columbia, SC (WLTX) - A circuit court judge says the South Carolina Department of Corrections' lack of mental health care for its prisoners had led to deaths, and says the agency must come up with a plan to properly take care of those inmates.
Judge J. Michael Baxley called the case the "most troubling" he's seen in his 14 years as a judge.
"Even the most brief and facile view of the evidence put forth by Plantiffs in this case reveals obvious, significant, and longstanding problems with mental health services delivery at SCDC," Baxley wrote in his ruling.
Several years ago, a group representing about 3,500 inmates sued the agency claiming mistreatment of inmates suffering from illnesses ranging from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.
"The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness," Baxley wrote. "We [society] 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."
The judge said the plantiff's proved the agency's mental health program was understaffed, leading to no plan for inmates to be returned to the public. Instead of treatment, the court also agreed that seriously mentally ill patients were subjected to a use of force or segregation. Baxter also found that the agency's suicide prevention and crisis intervention process have led to an "unnecessary loss of life."
In his ruling, Baxter suggest six steps the agency should take to address the problems.
1. A systematic program for screening and evaluating inmates to identify those in need of mental health care;
2. A treatment program that involves more than segregation and close supervision of mentally ill inmates;
3. Employment of a sufficient number of trained mental health professionals;
4. Maintenance of accurate, complete, and confidential mental health treatment records;
5. Administration of psychotropic medication only with appropriate supervision and periodic evaluation; and
6. A basic program to identify, treat, and supervise inmates at risk for suicide.
The Department of Corrections says they intend to appeal the lawsuit. "Mental health is not just a corrections' problem, it's a national problem that all sectors of society are working to address," the agency said in a statement.