COLUMBIA - The South Carolina Department of Corrections is continuing its efforts to address how the mentally ill are treated with the creation of a unit that houses inmates who harm themselves.

The Self-Injurious Behavior Unit at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia opened July 29. It's a self-contained unit that has 23 beds with three counselors who can respond faster when an inmate feels the urge to hurt himself. A psychiatrist and clinical assistant also are assigned to the unit.

"The self-injurious behavior unit and Crisis Intervention Team training are additional ways we are making our institutions safer for inmates and staff," said SCDC Director Bryan Stirling in a written message through the agency's spokeswoman.

The agency has received a lot of flak this year, following a 45-page ruling by then-Circuit Judge Michael Baxley in January. Baxley was named senior vice president and general counsel of state-owned utility Santee Cooper effective July 1.

The ruling was the result of a 2005 class-action lawsuit filed against the agency by the nonprofit group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc., on behalf of mentally ill prisoners.

Last year, the Legislature coughed up $1.2 million for the department to hire more counselors and improve mental health care for inmates. But that amount is not nearly enough to cover the changes ordered by Baxley, experts said.

Baxley gave SCDC six months to come up with a plan to fix the department's failures in a number of areas. The department filed an appeal to the ruling. SCDC has also been in mediation with the nonprofit for months in hopes of working together to move forward on the matter.

The group's executive director, Gloria Prevost, said there's much more to be done by the agency.

"Of course, we're pleased with any step they take forward," Prevost said. "There still is a lot to be done before we can be assured that our clients are receiving the care they need and that the judge found they need."

SCDC also had 25 correctional officers complete a week-long Crisis Intervention Team training with the National Institute of Corrections. The training, which was conducted in South Carolina, is a pilot program by the institute, which brings the trainers to departments of corrections, instead of having officers fly to them. The program trains officers who are most often in contact with mentally ill prisoners to help play a role in their treatment and management.

"The CIT training allowed us to open this new (Self-Injurious Behavior Unit) by giving our officers necessary tools to better manage inmates with behavioral needs," Stirling said. "Some of these 25 officers will go on to train more security staff in crisis intervention."

The Post and Courier went behind prison doors and into mental health units within SCDC's system earlier this year. Officials say they've been doing the best they can, including special dorms set aside for mentally ill prisoners at Lieber, Lee and Perry state prisons.

South Carolina's prisons have been on a financial diet since at least the mid-1990s, when a no-nonsense Texan named Michael Moore was brought in to run the system with an eye toward austerity.

In the years since, South Carolina has consistently ranked at or near the bottom for prison spending nationally.

In 2005, the year the lawsuit was filed, South Carolina spent 42 percent less per day on its inmates than 16 states surveyed by the Southern Leadership Conference. That year, South Carolina spent less money per inmate than any state in the nation.

At the same time, South Carolina's prisons became virtual warehouses for the mentally ill due to cutbacks in mental health care. The state Department of Mental Health, for example, has seen its budget shrink 40 percent in the last decade, the largest drop of any state since 2002.

In South Carolina, at least five times more mentally ill people are housed in jails and prisons than in hospitals, a 2010 study by the nonprofit Advocacy Treatment Center and the National Sheriffs' Association found.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.