What you need to know about S.C.'s mentally ill inmate problem

A week from hell

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BOB JAGENDORF, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Bob Jagendorf, Wikimedia Commons
South Carolina has once again found itself on the nation's radar screen for all the wrong reasons — and this time because of our horrific treatment of mentally ill inmates. Here's a primer for those who might not have followed the fragmented news.

Writing in The Atlantic on Jan. 10, Andrew Cohen shocked the conscience of readers statewide — and likely the nation — with a piece titled “When Good People Do Nothing: The Appalling Story of South Carolina Prisons.”

Cohen had based his piece off a Jan. 8 ruling by S.C. Judge Michael Baxley that outlined in horrific detail the brutality and inhumanity mentally ill inmates in South Carolina suffer at the hands of their jailers. The lawsuit, by the way, had been filed in 2005. In his ruling, Cohen wrote that the judge had used antiseptic words in describing inmate conditions, and so Cohen set out to explain what the judge's language meant.

From The Atlantic:

They mean that one mentally ill inmate, James Wilson, was kept in solitary confinement for at least 2,491 consecutive days. It means that an intellectually disabled (and schizophrenic) man named Jerome Laudman was abused and neglected, and then left to rot in his own feces and vomit, until he died of a heart attack. It means that force was used 81 times on a severely mentally ill inmate named James Howard. It means that some mentally ill inmates were restrained at length in what they called a "crucifix position."

It means some mentally ill prisoners were "routinely placed" naked "in shower stalls, rec cages, interview booths, and holding cells for hours and even days at a time." It means that suicidal prisoners who were supposed to be receiving antipsychotic medication were not receiving them. No surprise, the judge wrote, since SCDC's "computer system cannot retrieve the names or numbers of all inmates referred" for mental health treatment, "the number of inmates who have made serious suicide attempts; or the number of inmates whose psychotropic medications have expired without being timely renewed."

It means that mentally ill inmates are routinely caged for days in their own feces and urine, having to eat literally where they shit. It means, Judge Baxley wrote, that "the deposition testimony of some psychiatrists reveals an alarming lack of knowledge about the policies and procedures at SCDC." One such psychiatrist did not know "what mental health counselors do, and had 'no idea' who drafted treatment plans" for inmates. And even if the mental health professionals knew what they were doing, they wouldn't have been able to do much. The ratio of inmates needing treatment to professionals able to provide it was astronomically high.

Even though the lawsuit had been going on for nearly a decade, Cohen pointed out that political leaders in South Carolina — leaders like GOP Sen. Mike Fair, who as chair of the Senate's Corrections and Penology Committee, should know — seemed oblivious to the problems. Cohen reached out to Fair and didn't hear back. He reached out to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and didn't hear back.

Following the judge's ruling and Cohen's much-circulated piece, editorial boards across South Carolina urged the state not to appeal and to reform the system

And when asked about the issue, Gov. Nikki Haley fanned the flames of outrage by telling The Greenville News that she thought the judge's ruling was based on old facts, saying to the paper, “We have come a long way in 10 years when those findings were found.”

This week, the Columbia-based alt-weekly Free Times devoted its cover story to the issue, bringing readers face to face with the haunting reality of life for the mentally ill behind South Carolina bars. Like the experience of Jerome Laudman.

From Porter Barron's report:

Judging by the grisly evidence entered into trial for a recently decided class-action lawsuit filed against SCDC on behalf of inmates with severe mental illnesses, conditions like Laudman’s were a hallmark of daily life for many of the plaintiffs.

Laudman’s Super-Max cell likely was vile when he got there — Super-Max isn’t known for housekeeping — but when neighboring inmates summoned prison personnel to check on him 11 days later by banging on the walls and hollering, the odor from his cell was so rank that corrections officers refused to enter. Opening the cell door, they saw Laudman on the cement floor — inert, unresponsive, naked, facedown in feces and vomit, drawing shallow breaths amid Styrofoam plates of rotten moldy food.

Disgusted, the guards and even the nurses refused to touch Laudman, according to court records. Instead, they sent for inmates to get him on a gurney. By the time Laudman arrived at Sumter’s Tuomey Hospital, his core temperature indicated hypothermia. A few hours later, he died of a heart attack. 

In the face of the wide coverage of problems plaguing the system, South Carolina's official response has been to appeal the judge's ruling. (In a broadcast about the appeal, WIS-TV aired partial video from an advocacy group showing a nurse trying to push organs back into the body of one inmate after self-inflicted wounds.) 

And yesterday, Cohen was back with a new piece in The Atlantic about the state's appeal.

His analysis:

The motion will be denied, as it should be, and then the legal dispute over the treatment of the inmates will move to the state's appellate courts. The process will take years. It will cost a great deal. And so long as state officials are litigating the matter, and proclaiming themselves aggrieved by the rule of law, there is little reason to think that the wretched lives of the inmates will be rendered any safer. They will instead remain citizens with grand rights but no remedies.

The state's motion is remarkable for the assertions it makes that directly contradict the evidence in the case — and also generally accepted notions of our rule of law.

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