COLUMBIA — Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state's prison system over the treatment of mentally ill inmates are agreeing to mediate solutions to the issue while also allowing the litigation to continue.
Mediation could ultimately save legal costs because it could work out solutions and end the litigation —which has been ongoing since 2005 — sooner, said Sen. Mike Fair of Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee.
"I'm glad mediation is going forward," Fair toldThe Greenville News. "I think everybody wins because of that. I choose to believe that the litigation will end more quickly because they're having the mediation."
Stuart Andrews, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, told The News that the plaintiffs agreed to mediation after a meeting Monday with state Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, who publicly offered mediation weeks ago.
Andrews said the plaintiffs had a concern over Stirling's previous proposal that litigation in the case be suspended while mediation was ongoing.
"We agreed that the litigation would proceed and go forward but that would not prohibit the parties from engaging in serious conversations about how to improve services for our clients," he said.
Clark Newsom, a spokesman for the prison system, issued a short statement about the mediation.
"Discussions were productive and both sides agreed to a framework for negotiations and mediation going forward," he said. "They will continue to work together."
Circuit Judge Michael Baxley last month found that the state's prison system has repeatedly violated the rights of the seriously mentally ill, in some cases resulting in their deaths, and ordered the agency to develop a plan of improvements within six months.
His 45-page order included individual horror stories, including cases in which inmates were placed in solitary for years, strapped into restraining chairs in painful positions and left naked and in filth in cold, empty cells.
The prison system has said it plans to appeal and has asked the judge to amend his order to find in favor of the agency. Prison officials also have released a list of improvements and actions they have taken in recent years to address the handling of mentally ill inmates.
Some of the solutions are expected to cost more money, though Fair said Stirling isn't ready to disclose the agency's request for additional funds.
"I expect there to be at least two years of pretty significant increases," he said.
He said some of the cost of improvements will come from more accurate screening of inmates for mental illness. Prison officials have estimated about 12 percent of the prison population suffer from mental illness, while Baxley said in his ruling that he believes the number is closer to 17 percent.
"Once they get into the neighborhood of diagnosing 17 percent and it's still going up, all of us are going to gasp for air," Fair said.
"But it's necessary. It's just something we have to do. It's the right thing to do. It makes the public safer because these people will hopefully come out of incarceration and still be treated."
Andrews said the talks will be confidential and could take months.
"We expect to continue to have a series of meetings," he said.
"And expect that those meetings will be productive. We're hopeful and believe that both sides are seriously committed to achieve some basis for going forward and continuing the conversation."