Judge: SC Corrections Dept. must improve inmate mental health

NBC News 2 

COLUMBIA, S.C. -A judge has ruled that South Carolina’s prison system is failing to care for its mentally ill inmates.

Circuit Judge Michael Baxley said in a ruling issued Wednesday that systemic changes are needed at the Department of Corrections needs to fix the problem.

Nearly two years ago, Baxley presided over arguments raised by a nonprofit group called Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. The group sued the Corrections Department in 2005 on behalf of several mentally ill inmates, one of whom suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and said he was kept for years in an isolation cell.

Corrections officials disputed the claims at trial, denying that any inmates’ constitutional rights were violated.

Paton Blough is a Greenville advocate for the mentally ill and founder of the Rehinge organization.

Blough had published letters in a SC newspaper last year that addressed the issue of failing to care for the mentally ill behind bars.

He experienced the issue first hand, as he dealt with Bipolar disorder and was incarcerated several times as he struggled with it.

“My condition actually got worse behind bars and I actually ended up with more charges as a result of I believe not receiving the care I needed medically,” Blough said.

Local leaders like the Spartanburg County Sheriff have applied for grants to establish a mental health court. The sheriff said his staff was not equipped to handle mentally ill inmates and they keep returning to jail without help.

Blough also notes the cost to taxpayers if these inmates go untreated. That includes police, court and incarceration costs.

“The CPR of mental illness is providing hospital beds, providing services for the people that are in crisis,” Blough said.

In response to the lawsuit, the SC Department of Corrections put out a statement saying it will appeal the ruling and that this is a national problem, not just a corrections issue.