I read with interest the recent op-ed by Jon Ozmint discussing Judge Michael Baxley's January order detailing the horrific conditions to which mentally ill inmates are exposed in South Carolina prisons.
Mr. Ozmint was director of the Department of Corrections for much of the period subject to Judge Baxley's order and a defendant in the lawsuit. I appreciate his candor in acknowledging the existence of serious problems in the department's delivery of mental health services - problems that have persisted for well over a decade and persist today, as documented in numerous studies and reports.
While there many points on which I agree with Mr. Ozmint, I feel several require clarification. For example, I agree that the department has many good and dedicated employees. There are simply far too few clinical staff, however, and many mental health counselors and correctional staff are grossly undertrained.
Mr. Ozmint is also correct when he says that all inmates, including those with mental illness, should be punished for the crimes they commit.
The point of our lawsuit was that they should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, which our state and federal constitutions forbid.
I also agree that solitary confinement (prison officials prefer the milder term "segregation") may be appropriate at times for some inmates with mental illness.
That does not mean, however, that mentally ill inmates should be warehoused in solitary twice as long as other prisoners, sometimes for ten years or more.
That does not mean solitary confinement cells should be so cold as to cause death by hypothermia, or that the walls and floors should be caked with blood and feces from previous inhabitants.
It does not mean mentally ill inmates in solitary should not receive their prescribed medication on a timely basis, or should not receive adequate mental health therapy.
Finally - and this is where it really hits home for the public - it does not mean that inmates with serious mental illness, after spending years in dehumanizing solitary confinement cells, should be released directly into a society they are profoundly unequipped to deal with.
In 2009, when Mr. Ozmint was its director, the Department of Corrections filed the following statement with the Court: "[I]n 2009 ... a well-developed mental health system has now been in place for decades."
At most, the department wrote, its mental health program "may need band aids or other minor remedies."
Judge Baxley reached a different conclusion, writing in his final order: "Even the most brief and facile view of the evidence ... reveals obvious, significant, and longstanding problems ..."
Instead of accepting Band-Aids, Judge Baxley gave the Department six months to propose a meaningful remedial plan.
Mr. Ozmint contends that meaningful reform will cost $50 million a year, but that is incorrect.
Necessary reforms can be implemented at a much, much lower cost than Mr. Ozmint suggests.
The South Carolina Supreme Court specifically appointed Judge Baxley to our lawsuit.
He presided over six years of litigation and six weeks of trial and called it "by far ... the most troubling" of the 70,000 cases he's handled.
Mr. Ozmint says plaintiffs were determined to litigate this case, but that's not quite accurate. Before we brought suit, we requested Mr. Ozmint help us lobby the General Assembly about these issues.
Only when we were rebuffed did we resolve to file this suit.
Eight years later, we're glad we did it.
Gloria Prevost is director of Protection and Advocacy for People With Disabilities Inc., a plaintiff in the class action against the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
Notice about comments:
The Post and Courier is pleased to offer readers the enhanced ability to comment on stories. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point.