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South Carolina Found in Contempt for Non-Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

South Carolina Found in Contempt for Non-Treatment
of Mentally Ill Prisoners

by Lonnie Burton

The South Carolina Department of Mental Health (DMH) and its director were held in contempt of court on September 5, 2002, for ignoring repeated court orders to treat mentally ill prisoners confined in county jails. The civil contempt order was issued by Circuit Court Judge Henry Floyd after he found that DMH had failed to treat prisoners at the Richland County jail in a timely fashion.

In the order, Floyd directed DMH head George Gintoli to give adequate psychiatric treatment to eight mentally ill prisoners -four by October 4 and the others by November 8, 2002. Judge Floyd wrote that he wouldn't impose actual penalties on DMH if the department presents a statewide treatment plan to the court by December 6, 2002.

However, the contempt order was issued only a month after the same court threatened to cite Gintoli and other state officials for contempt if they failed to present a "reasonable and expeditious" plan for treating the prisoners. Floyd had said that each official would face six months in prison and a $1,500 fine if they did not comply.

Statewide, there are more than 60 prisoners who have either been judged incompetent to stand trial or have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Those people are stuck in county jails, without treatment, while awaiting bed space at state mental health facilities. With treatment, many of those prisoners could recover enough to stand trial.

DMH officials say they has about 175 beds throughout the state for mentally ill patients, but that they are all full and they do not have enough staff to treat the patients they have. DMH also cites money restrictions, such as having its $178 million budget cut by 18 percent since January 2001, for its inability to comply with the judge's order. But critics, such as USC law school professor Eldon Wedlock, said that a lack of money is "not a reason for disobeying a judicial order."

The overcrowding seemed to reach a peak on November 26, 2002, when a Pickens County sheriff's deputy handcuffed a mentally ill prisoner to a fence post outside a Columbia mental hospital after being told there was no room for the man. The sheriff claimed that he was merely following a judge's order to hospitalize the man, but DMH says that the sheriff made no prior arrangements to admit the man and prisoners cannot be brought to the facility without notice. After a short period being cuffed to the fence, hospital staff found the man a bed and admitted him.

On December 6, 2002, DMH finally presented the court with its plan to treat mentally ill prisoners and reduce the backlog of those awaiting treatment. Under the plan DMH would: (1) Eliminate statewide waiting lists; (2) Free 32 beds at Columbia Care Center by transferring prisoners there who are ready for release; (3) Start a treatment program at the Richland jail to treat some prisoners there; and (4) Increase the capacity of its pre-trial program. Upon submission of the plan, Judge Floyd lifted the earlier contempt order and imposed no sanctions.

During the court hearing on DMH's new plan which took place January 29, 2003 the department told the court that it has reduced its waiting lists from last year's high of 70 to 45 and estimated the lists will be eliminated by this summer. The court was also told that the average wait time for treatment has been reduced from six months to about 2-1/2 months. But the plan did not assuage all of the concerns.

Charleston County Public Defender Beatie Butler said that DMH recently returned a mentally ill prisoner to the Richland jail despite the fact he needed more treatment. "If they're just sticking mentally ill people back in the jail, taking them off the waiting lists serves no purpose," Butler said.

Judge Floyd scheduled another hearing in 90 days to review the situation and address these new concerns.

Source: The State (Columbia, SC)

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