By Jessica Connor
Mentally ill inmates forced to endure hours of restraint in crucifix positions with no bathroom break. Days spent naked in shower stalls, holding cells and interview booths. Routine and excessive use of pepper spray and other force. Repeated denial of basic psychiatric medications and other treatment plans. Inadequate supervision and staffing. In one instance, a seven-year period of solitary confinement. Multiple deaths.
And for the last 15 years, it has all been happening right here in South Carolina s Department of Corrections.
In what he called the most troubling of the more than 70,000 cases to come before him in the last 14 years, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley issued an order in January in T.R., P.R., K.W., et al. v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, et al., citing the above and calling the SCDC mental health program inherently flawed and systemically deficient in all major areas. Baxley s order requires the SCDC to remedy constitutional violations by submitting a remedial plan within six months to include development of screening and mental health treatment programs; employ sufficient mental health professionals; maintain treatment records and administer psychotropic medication with appropriate supervision and periodic evaluation; and identify, treat and supervise inmates at risk for suicide.
On the heels of that lawsuit, two United Methodist pastors have submitted a resolution to Annual Conference 2014 calling for the S.C. Conference of The United Methodist Church to advocate for mental health reform in the SCDC. Submitted by the Rev. John W. Culp and the Rev. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg, A Resolution to Support our Neighbors: The Need for Services to Individuals with Mental Illness in the South Carolina Department of Corrections specifically instructs the S.C. Conference to urge the director of the SCDC to take all measures necessary to correct the long-standing deficiencies in its mental health program; to urge S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley to request that the S.C. General Assembly appropriate sufficient funds to enable the SCDC to provide adequate mental health services and to correct these deficiencies; and to urge members of the General Assembly to appropriate sufficient funds to do so.
The resolution also calls on S.C. UMC Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston to convey the concern and desire of United Methodists throughout South Carolina to the SCDC, the governor and the General Assembly by correspondence and other appropriate means.
The Bible instructs Christians everywhere to care for the suffering, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked and provide care for the least of these, including those who suffer mental illness regardless of their station or location in life, the resolution reads, noting the Court found that ˜individuals have died in the Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation and profound, permanent mental illness. (See sidebar this page for the full text of the resolution.)
Jamieson-Ogg, senior pastor of Trinity UMC, Blythewood, said she hopes the resolution inspires people to not just speak, but to act on behalf of prisoners.
This resolution isn t about politics; it s about people, namely the ˜least of these, who suffer mental illness behind bars without adequate treatment, Jamieson-Ogg said. The mentally ill in our nation are on the ˜bottom of the barrel in terms of treatment and care. The mentally ill in our prisons are even further at the bottom. It s way past time for our state and our church to respond to this crisis.
Baxley stated in his order that what happens at the SCDC impacts all of us, whether from the discharge of the untreated mentally ill into society, the increased cost for treatment and care that might have been prevented or the needless increase in human suffering.
The decisions of our courts reflect the values of our society, Baxley wrote. To that end, our state can no longer tolerate a mental health system at the South Carolina Department of Corrections that has broken down due to lack of finances and focus.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that prompted the resolution are a class of 3,500 men and women incarcerated in the SCDC who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness: bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia and other issues. Because of lack of funding and lack of infrastructure, including the elimination of many psychologist, social worker and psychiatrist positions in the SCDC, the result was the lack of a basic system for treating the needs of mentally ill inmates, said Stuart Andrews, co-counsel representing plaintiffs and a member of Trinity UMC, Blythewood.
When we first filed the lawsuit in 2005, there were fewer than two full-time psychiatrists to serve 25,000 inmates, Andrews said. When we tried the case in 2012, there were about five and a half full-time equivalent psychiatrists, and less than one full-time psychologist. Staffing is still woefully deficient, as Judge Baxley found.
Andrews said many of the inmates were slipping through the cracks and not being identified as mentally ill, which means they were not receiving medications and other needed treatment. For those inmates who were identified, they might get medication and a treatment plan, but their diagnosis would change dramatically ”one day they might be diagnosed bipolar, and another day with schizophrenia, Andrews said.
We found psychiatrists often did not participate in the development of treatment plans, Andrews said. The clinical counselors were severely undertrained. The great majority were not licensed and simply didn t know how to develop an effective treatment plan or implement it.
All of this made the conditions for these inmates far worse, Andrews said, and increased the likelihood they would act out, violate internal rules and be locked up for extended periods of time, often in solitary confinement.
But thanks to Baxley s ruling and a new director, Bryan Stirling, at the helm of the SCDC, Andrews is optimistic about reform. They are now in a process of mediation where plaintiffs are working with the SCDC to address the problems in the mental health program and develop a plan to correct them. Andrews said Stirling has expressed a desire to remedy the problems.
We expect a comprehensive plan to be completed before the end of the year, and we hope to be able to present it to the legislature next year. At that point, we will ask the legislators to provide the necessary funding for these services, Andrews said.
UMs urge support
Andrews said he hopes fellow United Methodists approve the resolution, an action he thinks will communicate a strong message to South Carolina leaders.
The purpose of resolutions is to communicate to the broader community that United Methodists are indeed united on issues of public, social and moral concern, and I would hope that United Methodists in South Carolina approach this issue with one mind and one heart and will understand that the effect of the approval of this resolution will be to convey to our elected leaders and folks everywhere that this issue is important, Andrews said.
Parker Evatt, who served as SCDC commissioner for eight years, 1987-1995, will be a delegate at this year s Annual Conference and said he will definitely support the resolution. He said the issue goes beyond the SCDC and impacts mental health in the entire state.
They don t have near enough funding to do what they need to do, said Evatt, who also served 13 years in the House of Representatives and for 21 years ran the Alston-Wilkes Society, a United Methodist Advance Special Ministry that provides offenders, former offenders at others at-risk with the tools they need to become productive citizens.
Evatt said while the situation might have been different some years ago, the biggest issue now is shortage of funding, and if the SCDC had the funds now, they would be able to effect better mental health programs that remedy the situation. He thinks United Methodists need to be vocal with state leaders about the need for funding.
A lot of us (United Methodists) live in the 46 counties all over the state, and representatives and senators need to hear their voices, Evatt said. If all they hear is the Department of Corrections asking for money, it s easy to turn them down, but if the citizens of the state rally behind them, I think it could have an impact.
We just need to compromise. It won t happen overnight, but we need to make strides somewhere.
The Rev. Tom Summers, who served 35 full-time years as a chaplaincy director and a director of clinical pastoral education in the S.C. Department of Mental Health, said he, too, supports the resolution, calling it right on target.
It s a really bad situation. The largest mental hospitals now are in correctional institutions, Summers said. With the recession and with the lack of legislative funding and the broken mental health systems throughout the country, the mentally ill who have been placed in these correctional systems have been neglected. Between budget problems and untrained care providers, the mentally ill have really been neglected in prisons.
This resolution and others to be considered at Annual Conference will be posted soon on the S.C. Conference website at www.umcsc.org/home/resources/2014-annual-conference/.
A Resolution to Support our Neighbors: The Need for Services to Individuals with Mental Illness in the South Carolina Department of Corrections
WHEREAS, United Methodists are called to love our neighbors and visit those in prisons;
WHEREAS, many South Carolinians, including a large number of United Methodists, struggle with mental illness and are at risk of being confined in the state s jails and prisons;
WHEREAS, South Carolina Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Baxley issued an order on January 8, 2014, after six weeks of trial finding that the South Carolina Department of Corrections is failing to provide adequate mental health services to men and women in its custody;
WHEREAS, the Court found that individuals have died in the Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness;
WHEREAS, Judge Baxley stated that, having served as a state court judge for 14 years and seen over 70,000 cases, this case, far above all others, is the most troubling;
WHEREAS, the dangerous conditions to which men and women with mental illness at the Department are exposed have been well-documented since 2000 through studies authorized by the S.C. Department of Mental Health, the S.C. General Assembly, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the S.C. Department of Corrections itself;
WHEREAS, the Bible instructs Christians everywhere to care for the suffering, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, and provide care for the least of these, including those who suffer mental illness regardless of their station or location in life.
RESOLVED, that the S.C. Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church calls on the director of S.C. Department of Corrections to take all measures necessary to correct the long-standing deficiencies in its mental health program that degrade men and women and expose them to inhumane conditions;
RESOLVED, that the S.C. Conference of The United Methodist Church calls on Governor Nikki Haley to request that the General Assembly appropriate sufficient funds to enable the Department of Corrections to provide adequate mental health services and to correct the deficiencies in its mental health program;
RESOLVED, that the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church calls on the members of S.C. General Assembly to appropriate sufficient funds to enable the Department of Corrections to provide adequate mental health services and to correct the deficiencies in its mental health program.
RESOLVED, that the Bishop of the S.C. Conference of The United Methodist Church should convey the concern and desire of United Methodists throughout South Carolina as expressed in this resolution
to the S.C. Department of Corrections, the governor and the S.C. General Assembly by correspondence and other appropriate means.