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Court: Treatment of South Carolina’s Mentally Ill Prisoners Unconstitutional

by David Reutter

In finding the treatment of South Carolina’s prisoners with “serious mental illness” is unconstitutional Judge J. Michael Baxley said that the case is “the most troubling” of those he has seen in more than 14 years on the bench.

At issue was a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of the approximately 3,500 prisoners in South Carolina prisons with “serious mental illness,” which is about 17% of the prison population. The court found six factors led it to find deliberate indifference in the care of those prisoners in the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC).

First, it found SCDC’s mental health program is severely understaffed. It also found disproportionate force and segregation used on the mentally ill when compared with non-mentally ill prisoners; SCDC’s mental health services lack a sufficient program to maintain accurate and complete treatment records; its screening and evaluation process is ineffective in identifying and treating seriously mentally ill prisoners; its administration of psychotropic medication is inadequately supervised and evaluated; SCDS’s suicide prevention and crisis intervention policies are inadequate.

The court said its findings “should not come as a shock to SCDC,” for despite previous internal and external reviews finding “multiple inadequacies and failures,” SCDC “failed through the years to take reasonable steps to abate [grave] risks” to the prisoners.

The conditions imposed on mentally ill prisoners within SCDC have “contributed to the deaths of multiple inmates while in segregation, while placing other inmates and staff at risk,” the court wrote. It found SCDC’s treatment program “places heavy reliance on segregation and use of physical force against seriously mentally ill inmates, as opposed to treatment.”

In fact, a mentally ill prisoner “is twice as likely to be placed in segregation as a non-mentally ill inmate,” the court found. They also spend longer periods of time in SMU. Finally, the court found mentally ill prisoners “suffer from disproportionate, unnecessary, and excessive uses of force.”

The court cited the death of prisoner Jerome Laudman as an example of SCDC’s deliberate indifference in treating mentally ill prisoners. Laudman, 44, died on February 18, 2008. He had a history of mental illness and was in crisis intervention for exhibiting unusual behavior, talking to himself, and for having a cell in disarray.

Laudman was placed in supermax at Lee Correctional Institution on February 7, and stripped, despite the unit not having a working heating system. Lt. Anthony Davis gassed Laudman with gas munitions and physically assaulted him. Food trays stacked up in Laudman’s cell, and he looked physically ill a week before his death. He was subsequently taken to a hospital and treated for hypothermia on the day he died. See Laudman v. Padula, USDC, D. South Carolina, Case No. 3:12-cv-02382.

Another issue is SCDC’s use of force. It utilizes restraint chairs in pre-determined four hour blocks. In one video tape, a prisoner who cut his abdomen was placed in a restraint chair and is seen “eviscerating, with his intestine coming out of the abdominal wall." Guards responded by “tightening the restraints, thereby putting additional pressure on his abdomen.” It was another two hours before the prisoner was finally taken to a hospital.

It was also found there is limited involvement by psychiatrists in creating treatment plans for SCDC’s mentally ill prisoners. There is also insufficient access to higher levels of care.

The court’s order set six pages worth of remedial factors and guidelines. It ordered SCDC to submit a proposed written remedial plan. 

See: T.R. v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, Fifth Judicial Circuit Court of Common Pleas, South Carolina, Case No. 2005-CP-402925

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Related legal case

T.R. v. South Carolina Department of Corrections