Local and State News

Plaintiffs to Prisons Agency: The Judge Has Spoken

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Update: SCDC Acting Director Bryan Stirling has replied to the plaintiffs, accepting their invitation to meet over lunch on Monday in hopes of reaching some consensus. Stirling also urged the plaintiffs to reconsider working together with the assistance of a mediator in a non-adversarial fashion.

Plaintiffs who’ve alleged the cruel and unusual punishment of mentally ill inmates in a class action lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Corrections are rebuffing a proposal by that agency’s acting director Bryan Stirling to reopen mediation talks.

Stirling had tacked a condition to his invitation: SCDC would put its promised appeal of Circuit Court Judge Michael Baxley’s ruling on hold if the plaintiffs would agree to have Baxley stay his order, a 45-page catalog of neglect and abuse, siding with the plaintiffs and mandating SCDC to present a remedial plan to the court within six months.

No deal, say the plaintiffs.

“Mediation is a pre-trial adversarial process that we unsuccessfully attempted in 2012,” the plaintiffs, who are represented by Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough’s pro bono team, wrote to Stirling. “We have been adversaries for nine years. It is time for us to sit down together not as adversaries, but as serious-minded people working together to correct the disturbing problems identified in Judge Baxley’s ruling.” 

Among those problems were a shortage of mental health staff, inadequate facilities for providing mental health care in times of crisis, the mismanagement of medication and medical records and the inappropriate use of force and confinement in managing inmates with severe mental illnesses. 

In addition to referencing the protracted nature of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ also claim they made good-faith overtures early in the process.

“Before filing the lawsuit in 2005, we asked the Department to join us in seeking additional resources from the legislature to address the well documented problems in the treatment of mentally ill inmates,” they write. “Only when the Department refused our request did we file suit.” 

Stirling, who announced his overture to the plaintiffs in a Senate confirmation hearing two weeks ago, maintained in his written proposal “that SCDC has taken numerous steps to improve the mental health care delivery systems and that SCDC has several meritorious defenses that have not yet been addressed by Judge Baxley.” 

But the plaintiffs replied that those corrective actions fell “far short of the measures needed to achieve meaningful reform” and that inhumane conditions and treatment still exist. “Some of the deficiencies are within your ability to correct internally; others will require additional resources from the legislature,” they wrote. 

They also warned that adherence to Baxley’s order would be the agency’s best insurance against further litigation. 

SCDC spokesman Clark Newsom told Free Times Tuesday morning that Stirling had received the plaintiffs’ reply to his proposal and that the agency was in the process of reviewing it.

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