An advocacy group representing mentally ill prisoners has declined to reopen mediation talks with the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
Gloria Provost - executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities - advised, in a letter on Monday, that mediation is a pre-trial adversarial process and one that failed in 2012. She suggested SCDC forego an appeal to a scathing ruling issued in January by Circuit Judge Michael Baxley over the agency's treatment of mentally ill prisoners, and asked the two agencies instead work together.
"The case has been tried and an order has entered in favor of the Plaintiffs," Provost wrote. "We have been adversaries for nine years. It is time for us to sit down together not as adversaries, but as serious-minded people working together to correct the disturbing problem identified in Judge Baxley's ruling."
Earlier this month, SCDC Acting Director Bryan Stirling sent a letter to the attorneys representing the advocacy group that sued on behalf of mentally ill patients in 2005 for alleged constitutional violations. In it, Stirling asked Attorneys Stuart Andrews and Daniel Westbrook to "reopen settlement discussions and reconvene the mediation" the parties had in 2012, before the lawsuit went to trial.
"I believe that by working together we can make great progress without the need for continued litigation," wrote Stirling, in a letter dated Feb. 4. "At minimum, we can discuss the remedial factors and guidelines set forth in the order and determine if we can narrow the issues and find potential solutions."
Plaintiffs detailed allegations against SCDC for lack of effective counseling and overreliance on tactics such as isolation and pepper spray to subdue unruly, mentally ill prisoners during the two-week trial. In his ruling, Baxley gave SCDC six months to come up with a plan to fix the department's failures in a number of areas. The department has said it will appeal the ruling.
Provost reminded Stirling in the letter that Baxley's ruling found the department has done little to correct "systemic deficiencies." She added the measures SCDC has taken since the trial "fall far short of the measures needed to achieve meaningful reform."
Provost goes on to say together, the two agencies can go before the General Assembly to ask for additional resources - money to make up for the shortage of mental health professionals and better record-keeping, among other needs - needed to ensure that SCDC comply with Baxley's ruling. Baxley ordered SCDC to develop a remedial plan within six months, but the department has said it will appeal the ruling.
"It is time for the Department to commit itself to the fundamental change necessary to protect both individuals in need of medical care and public safety," wrote Provost, before closing out her letter acknowledging SCDC's offer to work together with a lunch invitation for next week.
"SCDC received the letter late this evening," said SCDC Spokesman Clark Newsom on Monday. "We are currently reviewing it."
Stirling will likely be confirmed by the Senate this week as the permanent director of SCDC. His confirmation was initially scheduled for Feb. 11, before last week's winter storm forced the Senate to cancel session for the week.
Stirling told the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee on Feb. 6 the department has been working with a doctor from Ohio, who is teaming up with the University of South Carolina, to make the process of identifying mentally ill prisoners better. But Stirling added that mental health is not a corrections problem, something he reiterated in his Feb. 4 letter.
"Mental health is not just a correctional problem; it is a national problem, as we see in the news each day," Stirling wrote. "SCDC wants to do all that it can within its finite resources and capabilities to properly house, treat and secure inmates with mental illness while balancing the safety of our officers/institutions and public safety."
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