It took 10 years, a blistering judgment and new leadership, but the state’s Department of Corrections is now on a path to deal with mentally ill prisoners in a rational, humane way.
The DOC plan, hammered out in cooperation with the advocacy group that sued the department for mistreatment of mentally ill inmates, still needs the Legislature to approve $8.2 million a year to implement. Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget includes the full funding, and the General Assembly should follow her advice. Not only would it ensure better practices at the prisons but it also would allow the DOC to drop its appeal of the ruling and focus its resources on corrections.
Director Bryan Stirling is already moving in that direction. The former chief of staff for Gov. Haley took over leadership of the department last January, just as Circuit Judge Michael Baxley issued his ruling. The judge called the circumstances described in the lawsuit the most distressing he had dealt with during his 14 years on the bench. The suit described mentally ill inmates being tear-gassed, locked in solitary confinement for years at a time, denied effective treatment and caged naked, alone and cold in makeshift crisis cells littered with rotten food, feces and other filth — conditions confirmed by reporter Glenn Smith in articles last spring.
The department appealed the decision, but Mr. Stirling wisely moved forward with addressing the issues.
Gloria Prevost, executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, plaintiff in the case, said progress to date suggests “there’s a good possibility of reaching a final settlement with the department.”
The plans include additional staffing, modifications of DOC’s security policies and procedures and developing a more positive staff culture and a better training curriculum.
Mr. Stirling’s progress includes opening a Self-Injurious Behavior Unit at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia in July. It is self-contained and has 23 beds and three counselors. A psychiatrist and clinical assistant are also assigned to the unit.
The Department of Corrections has had to deal with inadequate funding from the Legislature for more than a decade. That pattern certainly has played a role in the maltreatment of mentally ill prisoners.
It is time to change that. With more suitable treatment, inmates will benefit, prison staff will be safer, and so will communities into which prisoners will eventually be released.