COLUMBIA - South Carolina's prisons agency has amassed more than $800,000 in legal bills defending accusations of poor care for mentally ill inmates.
A spokesman confirmed to The Greenville News that the Department of Corrections had spent $838,000 on the case brought by a group of mentally ill inmates, who sued the agency in 2005 over alleged constitutional violations. Among their complaints was a lack of effective counseling and overreliance on tactics, such as isolation and pepper spray to subdue unruly, mentally ill prisoners.
After years of negotiations and preparation, a two-week trial was held in 2012.
Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley sided with the inmates, writing a 45-page ruling that castigated the department for failures in a number of areas - from screening new inmates for mental health problems to properly administering medication and preventing suicide - and gave the agency six months to come up with a plan to fix them. Court-appointed monitors would report back on progress.
The Department of Corrections has asked Baxley to amend his ruling and has said it may appeal if that request is denied. The agency has released a list of actions taken in recent years to address the handling of mentally ill inmates.
Attorney James Moore of the Charleston-based McLeod Law Group said the family of his client, the late Jerome Laudman, is shocked that $838,000 was spent to defend a case that simply requested the Corrections Department to improve the quality of its mental health care.
Baxley's order highlighted the story of Laudman, who suffered from mental illness and who died from complications of hypothermia and sepsis while in the Special Management Unit at Lee Correctional Institution. He had spent 11 days lying naked on the concrete floor.
The firm released a statement from Laudman's uncle, Arthur Laudman, saying, "I will never understand why people in state government would spend close to $1 million to defend what seems to be indefensible conduct instead of using this money to improve and protect people like Jerome."
Prison officials would not comment on the amount spent on the lawsuit. State Sen. Karl Allen, a Greenville Democrat and a member of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said the amount spent defending against the suit is "almost borderline ridiculous."
Baxley ended his ruling by admonishing the agency for failing to settle the case in the first place and for spending so much money in the process.
"The hundreds of thousands of tax dollars spent defending this lawsuit, at trial and most likely now on appeal, would be better expended to improve mental health services delivery at SCDC," he wrote.
Moore said Laudman's family calls on the Corrections Department to immediately set aside $838,407 toward plans to develop screening and mental health treatment programs; employ more mental health professionals; improve treatment records; identify, treat, and supervise inmates at risk for suicide.
The Associated Press and Robert Behre of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.