South Carolina Is Still Defending Its Neglectful Prisons

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Over the objections of the state's best editorial writers and some of its leading legislators, South Carolina has chosen to fight a recent court order declaring its prisons to be unconscionable (and unconstitutional) dens of abuse and neglect for mentally ill inmates housed there. Lawyers for the state filed a motion Tuesday with Judge Michael Baxley, the link to which can be found here, asking him to "alter or amend" his January 8th order in which he found that...

… inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, an hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.

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. So, for example, after a contested trial in which mountains of evidence of systemic abuse and neglect were proven, including evidence established by the state's own doctors and investigators going back over a decade, the state's lawyers offered this nugget:

Even if the Plaintiffs have presented some evidence of systemic constitutional violations, which the Defendants deny, the extensive remedies ordered by the Court are far in excess of what might be necessary to remedy any alleged violation [emphasis added].

And even though the evidence before Judge Baxley amply established that the state's policies and practices toward mentally ill inmates had caused the death of some of those inmates, and terrible physical and emotional harm to others, state lawyers told the judge that he had erred in ruling against South Carolina because "only extreme deprivations are adequate to satisfy the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim." Ponder for a moment what would constitute "extreme deprivation" in South Carolina if death doesn't do the trick. (To briefly summarize some of the points I listed in a previous piece, the state's mentally ill inmates were routinely placed naked in small spaces for hours at a time, or left for days sitting in their own feces and urine.)

South Carolina also challenged Judge Baxley on the law. In its motion, the state argued that the inmates had no standing to challenge the conditions of their confinement, that there was no "private cause of action" upon which they could rely in seeking help, that "the punishment of the mentally ill for violations of the law" could never constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment, and that the case "gives rise to a non-justiciable political question" beyond the control of the courts or even the Department of Corrections.

These assertions turn on their head the entire edifice of American law—the idea that our judges have the authority to determine the constitutional rights of citizens, the notion that state officials are bound by law, and the principle that prisoners retain certain rights and protections even while incarcerated, to name just a few. If the courts accept these arguments, the state's prisons will become islands of lawlessness where the entities responsible for the abuse and neglect (the Department of Corrections and the state legislature) will get to decide whether they want to remedy those problems, or not.

And that, in turn, is a remarkable position for South Carolina to take in light of the reaction Judge Baxley's ruling generated on the ground in South Carolina. It turns out there are a great many good people in the Palmetto State who are mortified by what is happening inside their prisons there and who want their elected officials to fix it, now, without spending any more time and money on lawyers. In Columbia, the editorial writers of The State, for example, last week bluntly called on state officials to fix the problem rather than continue to litigate over it. From the paper's house editorial:

SADLY, THERE is little surprising about a judge’s ruling that the state of South Carolina long has treated mentally ill inmates poorly and must clean up its act. For years, our state’s “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality led to inexcusable neglect, as legislators passed laws that increased the inmate population without providing adequate funding to help the Department of Corrections deal with overcrowding, rehabilitation, inmate care and other critical elements of its mission. While inmates are convicted of crimes, the state is responsible for providing an adequate level of mental and health care to those in its custody.

One week earlier, just days after Judge Baxley's ruling, The Post and Courier, in Charleston, was even more blunt in its assessment that the time has come for reform, and not additional prison litigation, there. It's important to note here that the state now has a budget surplus, which you would think would vitiate at least some of the political arguments against complying with the constitutional principles the judge set forth in his opinion. From the paper's house editorial on January 12th:

The Legislature should make it a top priority for the coming session to evaluate the circumstances and budget enough money for adequate staffing, medical care, medications and training. The prisons have been a convenient place for tough-on-crime legislators to skimp when considering the budget. It's an easy sell on the way to the polls, and prisoners don't vote.

Judge Baxley's ruling should be a shocking reminder of the important role prisons play in the safety of citizens and the imperative to operate them humanely and efficiently. Prisoners who fail to get treatment for mental illness may re-enter society in worse shape than before incarceration. No wonder. The judge cited the incidence of severely mentally ill prisoners who have been segregated for long periods of time - even years and years...

Corrections struggles under the difficulty of being perennially under-funded. Too few employees are expected to do an extremely difficult job for inadequate pay. Nevertheless Judge Baxley is correct when he says treatment of prisoners with serious mental illnesses has to improve, despite the department's budgetary woes. And Corrections has to begin the reform process now.

It isn't just the local media that seems to see the light. The biggest awakening about the plight of these inmates has come from State Senator Mike Fair, of Greenville, a Republican who chairs the Corrections and Penology Committee. You may remember Senator Fair as the official who said immediately after Judge Baxley's ruling that he "didn't know that we had a problem with any particular aspect of mistreating or not treating inmates who have a diagnosis of mental illness," even though he himself had chaired a 2003 Task Force that found terrible conditions for the mentally ill in South Carolina's prisons.

Senator Fair now is singing a different tune. "Why not be the best when it comes to treating the mentally ill? It saves money in the long run,” the senator subsequently told the South Carolina Free Times. "I choose to believe everybody involved in this is reasonable. Instead of spending all that money on going to court, let’s spend it on fixing the problem.” Fair told the paper that "Baxley’s thorough rebuke of SCDC had certainly gotten legislators’ attention, and that members of both the House and Senate are studying the situation and expecting an increased budget request to come in from SCDC."

And yet, in despite of all this, South Carolina Tuesday filed that useless motion. And when Governor Nikki Haley delivered her state-of-the-state speech Wednesday night, an address that ran about 40 minutes and included a nod to an American Idol winner from the state, she was unwilling to mention what the judge found or how her administration planned to remedy it. Her only public comment on Judge Baxley's ruling came a few weeks ago, when she asserted, contrary to virtually all of the evidence introduced at trial, that the problems were from "a case from 10 years ago that related to about five to 10 years prior to that."

The people of South Carolina have taken the important step of acknowledging that things need to change. But clearly it's going to take more. While the state pursues its immoral appeal, while the days turn into months and the months turn into years for the men and women living in horrific conditions, take the time (if you can) to watch these videos (warning, they are graphic) filmed inside these prisons and presented as evidence in the case, to get a sense of what so horrified Judge Baxley.

For example, here is the treatment of Baxter Vinson. His story? From a summary produced by the plaintiffs' attorneys:

Baxter Vinson has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. On March 8, 2008, Vinson was being held in the Behavior Modification Unit at Broad River Correctional Institution. At approximately 11:00 p.m., correctional officers discovered he had cut both his arms and his abdomen. At approximately 12:23 a.m., Vinson was strapped down in a restraint chair in the solitary confinement unit where a nurse, over Vinson's strenuous objections, attempted to press his protruding intestines back into his abdominal wall. At 2:23 a.m., two hours after being placed in the restraint chair and over three hours after his wounds were discovered, Vinson was removed from the restraint chair and transported by van to a hospital.

Or absorb the story of Jerod Cook:

Jerod Cook has been diagnosed with Major Depression with Psychotic Features. On September 1, 2009, Cook was being held in solitary confinement at Perry Correctional Institution. At 9:35 p.m. a correctional officer discovered that Cook had cut himself on his right arm. During the next 90 minutes, Cook lost a substantial amount of blood from the wounds on his arm. At some point during this period, Cook collapsed face down on the floor of his cell in a pool of his own blood.

At approximately 11:00 p.m., Cook, who appeared to be barely conscious, was lifted off the floor by SCDC officers and placed on a stretcher. He was then carried to a solitary confinement cell, where he was strapped down and locked in a restraint chair with blood dripping from his arm, forming a pool on the floor. Pursuant to SCDC practice, Cook remained in the restraint chair for four hours, until shortly after 4:00 am, when he was removed, stripped naked, and placed in a crisis intervention cell. SCDC records noted that during the period he was in the restraint chair, “no medical staff is on duty.”

Every day that South Carolina officials assert there is no evidence of the abuse or mistreatment of mentally ill inmates, every day state lawyers assert that what is happening inside those prisons does not constitute the "extreme deprivation" of lawful rights, every day the effort in this conflict is directed toward court and not toward meaningful reform, is a day that diminishes the state and all those in it who have seen wrong and are trying to right it. 

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.


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