After 11 years of litigation, the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) has agreed to make real changes in the treatment of inmates with serious mental illness. A settlement agreement between the class action plaintiffs, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc.(P&A), and the SCDC could end the brutal treatment of an estimated 3,500 offenders with serious mental illness in SCDC facilities.

The agreement resolves a class-action lawsuit brought by P&A in 2005 on behalf of offenders after P&A investigated numerous incidents of abuse and neglect in SCDC facilities. The case was tried for six weeks in 2012.

In early 2014 Circuit Judge Michael Baxley issued a landmark ruling finding grossly unconstitutional treatment of inmates with serious mental illness.

This is a long-needed agreement whose implementation can end a dark chapter in South Carolina history. Offenders with serious mental illnesses were subjected to abject brutality and neglect, much of which was captured on video and shocked the nation when shown in open court.

“The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious injury, mental decompensation and profound, permanent mental illness,” Judge Baxley wrote.

The settlement creates an independent process to monitor implementation of the plan that would transform the culture and performance of SCDC personnel who deal with inmates with serious mental illnesses.

The agreement establishes measurements that have strict timetables and will be supervised by independent national experts. The test for satisfaction of the standards is that SCDC would have to maintain compliance for at least two years.

SCDC will have four years to implement the remedial guidelines.

Plaintiffs met with strong resistance from previous gubernatorial administrations.

After Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Bryan Stirling SCDC director, the tone of negotiations changed. Even though our discussions were tough and the issues were complicated, Mr. Stirling recognized the need for a cultural change and demonstrated an attitude that was both open and constructive. A level of trust developed among the participants that allowed us to make progress.

The governor and Director Stirling deserve much credit for the agreement, which, if fully implemented, will comply with Judge Baxley’s order.

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The General Assembly has also supported funding to enable SCDC to comply with the agreement.

This settlement agreement, while historic, is only the first step.

While the current governor and leadership of SCDC have demonstrated a commitment to reform, it will be up to the next governor to assure the four-year implementation of the remedial plan and the General Assembly must continue to appropriate the funds.

Although we are extremely pleased that the case is on its way to resolution, we continue to regret that the state fought this case “tooth and nail,” wasting resources that could have been used to provide treatment for our clients.

Gloria Prevost is executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc.