The agreement between the Department of Corrections and the nonprofit Protection & Advocacy for People With Disabilities, Inc., (P&A) comes one year after a state judge ruled the agency is failing to care for inmates with mental health issues. The Corrections Department initially signaled it would appeal the ruling, but agreed to negotiate a deal after new Corrections director Bryan Stirling took charge of the agency in January 2014.
“This is a significant step in the process of a long-term solution,” Stirling said in a statement. “We have been working together to develop a 3-year budget and staffing plan that we hope will be approved by the legislature. Implementation of this plan will be a challenge and will require a great deal of cooperation, however, this is a first step and we look forward to making our prisons safer for the public servants in corrections, inmates and the community.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in 2005, claimed mentally ill inmates were often held in filthy conditions as part of their solitary confinement. Others did not receive proper treatment for their conditions and often left prison in worse shape than when they entered, according to P&A executive director Gloria Prevost.
“Most people in prison eventually get out, she said. “And if they don’t get treatment and they come out with their mental illness worse than they went in, or they became mentally ill in prison, then we’re talking about a public safety factor.”
The settlement will require the Corrections Department to spend an additional $8 million spread over the next years on additional staff, such as psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists. Gov. Nikki Haley included the $4 million required for next fiscal year in her proposed budget released this week at Sterling’s request. $1.6 million will also be spent on upgrading facilities.
Legislators in both the House and Senate will have to approve the additional spending.
The Corrections Department also agreed to significant modifications in security policies and procedures. The agency said it’s also developing an improved training curriculum, including Crisis Intervention Training to improve staff’s ability to use conflict avoidance techniques and deescalate crisis situations. Corrections said it has developed a program for screening and evaluating inmates to more accurately identify those in need of mental health care.
Stirling said about 2,500 inmates currently in the South Carolina prison system suffer from some kind of mental illness.