COLUMBIA — The plaintiffs in a lawsuit over care of mentally ill inmates in the state’s prisons say they will respond soon to an offer by the state’s new prison chief to try mediation following a judge’s ruling last month against the agency.
Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections, said during a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that he had sent a letter to the plaintiffs in the case to see if they would be willing to try mediation again and the agency’s plans to appeal the ruling might be put on hold if both sides engaged in mediation.
“There are some things we probably can agree on,” Stirling told the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee about talks with the plaintiffs. “There may be some things that unless this General Assembly is going to give us a significant amount of money, that we’re not going to be able to do immediately. But we might as well do what we can together and worry about what we can’t later.”
The chairman of the Senate committee discouraged members from asking Stirling questions about the mental health issue, though one did anyway.
Circuit Judge Michael Baxley last month found that the state’s prison system has repeatedly violated the rights of the seriously mental ill, in some cases resulting in their deaths, and ordered the agency to develop a plan of improvements within six months. His 45-page order included individual horror stories, including cases in which inmates were placed in solitary for years, strapped into restraining chairs in painful positions and left naked and in filth in cold, empty cells.
The prison system has said it plans to appeal and has asked the judge to amend his order to find in favor of the agency. Prison officials also have released a list of improvements and actions they have taken in recent years to address the handling of mentally ill inmates.
Stirling, a former chief of staff for Gov. Nikki Haley, said he has talked with the director of the state Department of Mental Health to look at the agency’s policies and procedures and suggest any changes.
Stirling was appointed to lead the prisons agency by Haley last year. The mental health lawsuit was filed in 2005 and tried in 2012.
Gloria Prevost, the executive director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc., the non-profit group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of mentally ill inmates, told The Greenville News that the group would consider what Stirling said.
“We think the judge put forth a wonderful order and we think he was right on target and that is where we would start, with the court order,” she said.
Dan Westbrook, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said he anticipated sending Stirling a response early next week.
“I’d love to talk to Mr. Stirling,” he said. “We’d certainly welcome that.”
Stirling during Thursday’s hearing repeated the agency’s position that mental health is a societal problem, not just one for the prison system.
“I wouldn’t say it’s too late when they come to me but some of these folks could have not come to me and lead productive lives with proper treatment and help outside the prison walls. Actually, going to prison probably exacerbates their condition in a lot of cases and that’s not helping anyone.”
Sen. Mike Fair of Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, warned committee members not to question Stirling about the issue of the prison systems treatment of the mentally ill, saying it was “just not wise” to do so because of the lawsuit.
Thursday’s hearing was attended by officials of the Protection and Advocacy group as well as some of their attorneys.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat and lawyer, questioned Stirling anyway, causing Fair to try and stop him.
“I am not a lawyer,” Fair said. “This is not the court. And I would ask you respectfully, this line of interrogation is not appropriate for this committee.”
Kimpson disagreed that his questions amounted to interrogation.
“This is a very troubling order,” he said about Baxley’s ruling. “It is well documented that the department had knowledge of the cruel and unusual punishment that has been going on at the Department of Corrections.”
Kimpson, the lone Democrat present on the panel Thursday and the newest member of the committee, said he had met Stirling and told him he would be reading Baxley’s order.
“I have an obligation to my constituents to inquire as to what his plans are,” he said of Stirling. “I do object to the state using resources to file an appeal of an order and the central argument is separation of powers. That argument was made in the pre-trial stage. It was dismissed.
“The judge gave it treatment in its order. I do believe the courts should be in a position to fashion an order that protects the constitutional rights of people who are incarcerated. If we want to talk about frivolous, I think the state using resources to appeal this matter is what we should be concerned about.”
Stirling said in response that that was why he wrote the mediation letter, “so we could get back to the table to talk about this.”
Kimpson asked what the system was doing to better diagnose mental illness of new inmates, pointing out that the agency believed 12 percent of inmates have some mental illness while the judge said evidence shows the number is actually 17 percent.
Stirling said he agrees that the diagnosis is important because if inmates have mental illness and the system does not catch it, that could put officers at risk.
He said the agency is working with an expert from Ohio State University and also with the University of South Carolina to look at the agency’s intake process and make it better.
Kimpson also asked about mentally ill inmates being placed in segregation, saying it appeared the state was “going beyond national standards” in holding prisoners for discipline in segregation.
Stirling said his staff is reviewing all mentally ill inmates in segregation “to better help them cope.”
He said he is reviewing the process and the system probably “needs to look at shortening their time.”
“If you have a mentally disturbed inmate, a very large individual, and they’re not behaving in the general population, we have to balance that with the security of our officers,” he said. “Sometimes, putting them in (segregation) is our only alternative for the officers’ safety, for their own safety and for the other inmates’ safety.”
The committee unanimously recommended confirmation of Stirling to the full Senate.