By Tim Smith
COLUMBIA, SC — Three months after a state judge issued a scathing report on the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, a national report is reaching a similar conclusion.
A report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association issued Thursday ranks South Carolina “near the bottom” in the treatment of mentally ill inmates.
The report found the state ranked near the bottom in the availability of public psychiatric beds, efforts to divert mentally ill from imprisonment, per capita spending on mental health “and almost every other measure of treatment for mentally ill individuals.”
The 190-page report comes about three months after a South Carolina circuit judge issued a 45-page order finding the state’s prison system violated the constitutional rights of inmates with serious mental illness, in some cases resulting in death.
The state disagrees and unsuccessfully asked Judge Michael Baxley to change his order, which directed the prison system to develop a plan for improving its handling of inmates with mental illness within six months.
Lawyers representing the prison system and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in Baxley’s order are currently in mediation talks concerning possible solutions.
“From a cursory reading of the chapter, the findings seem consistent with the need for increased services,” said Gloria Prevost, executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, the plaintiff in the South Carolina prison system suit.
“It is our goal and hope that conditions for inmates with mental illness in SCDC will improve based upon Judge Baxley’s order and the willingness of the new director of the agency to work with us.”
The Treatment Advocacy report released Thursday details the problems of mentally ill prisoners in state and local jails, calling them the new “asylums” in the nation because they hold 10 times the number of mentally ill than in state mental health facilities.
In South Carolina, the state’s prison system estimates about 12 percent of the system’s 23,000 inmates are mentally ill, but Baxley said he believes the number is closer to 17 percent.
Thursday’s report said the largest state psychiatric hospital in South Carolina, the G. Werber Bryan Psychiatric Hospital in Columbia, has 198 beds.
The report noted the case of a York County jail inmate with a bipolar disorder serving time on minor charges.
He became manic while in jail, according to the report, and spit and threw urine and feces at jail guards, days after he threatened a judge and two police officers. He was sentenced to six years in prison, according to the report.
The summary of South Carolina also quoted accounts in The Greenville News of what happened in the case of Jerome Laudman, a mentally ill inmate who died in 2008 after being placed in solitary confinement for 11 days.
Laudman was kept naked in a solitary cell with faulty heating and had a body temperature of 80.6 degrees when he was taken to a hospital where he died, according to documents in a federal lawsuit.
Laudman’s estate has sued individual officers in federal court alleging gross negligence, violations of civil rights, excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The estate has filed a wrongful death suit against the prison system in state court.
The defendants have all denied wrongdoing and trials are expected over the next year.
Thursday’s report, according to its authors, is the first national survey of officials on the state and local level about the treatment of mentally ill in jails and state prisons. It focused on the problem of treating seriously mentally ill inmates who refuse treatment, usually because they lack awareness of their own illness and don’t think they are sick.
“The treatment of mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails is critical, especially since such individuals are vulnerable and often abused while incarcerated,” the report states. “Untreated, their psychiatric illness often gets worse, and they leave prison or jail sicker than when they entered.”
According to the survey, not only are the numbers of incarcerated mentally ill continuing to climb but also the severity of mental illness for those inmates.
The report recommends reforming states’ mental illness laws and practices so individuals can be treated adequately before they commit acts that land them behind bars.
Those already incarcerated should be treated adequately “so inmates with mental illness can receive appropriate and necessary treatment just as inmates with medical conditions receive appropriate and necessary medical treatment.”
Other recommendations include creating jail or prison diversion programs such as mental health courts, using court-ordered outpatient treatment, “careful” intake screening, mandatory planning for mentally ill inmates before they are released to communities and studies to compare the cost of incarceration with the cost of community treatment.
“In summary, we have placed more than 300,000 severely mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails that are neither equipped nor staffed to handle such problems,” the report concludes.
“We subsequently have made it very difficult to treat the mentally ill inmates, put restriction on other options for controlling their behavior, and then blamed the prison and jail administrators when they fail. It is a situation that is grossly unfair to both the inmates and the corrections officials and should be the subject of public outrage and official action.”
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