- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s prisons agency has amassed more than $800,000 in legal bills defending accusations of poor care for mentally ill inmates.

A spokesman confirmed to The Greenville News (http://grnol.co/1iOkPr1 ) that the Department of Corrections had spent $838,000 on the case brought by a group of mentally ill inmates, who sued the agency in 2005 over alleged constitutional violations. Among their complaints was a lack of effective counseling and overreliance on tactics like isolation and pepper spray to subdue unruly, mentally ill prisoners.

After years of negotiations and preparation, a two-week trial was held in 2012. Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley sided with the inmates, writing a 45-page ruling that castigated the department for failures in a number of areas - from screening new inmates for mental health problems to properly administering medication and preventing suicide - and gave the agency six months to come up with a plan to fix them. Court-appointed monitors would report back on progress.

The Corrections Department has asked Baxley to amend his ruling and has said it may appeal if that request is denied. The agency has released a list of actions taken in recent years to address the handling of mentally ill inmates.

Prison officials would not comment on the amount spent on the lawsuit. Sen. Karl Allen, a Greenville lawyer and a member of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said the amount spent defending against the suit is “almost borderline ridiculous.”

Baxley ended his ruling by admonishing the agency for failing to settle the case in the first place and for spending so much money in the process.

“The hundreds of thousands of tax dollars spent defending this lawsuit, at trial and most likely now on appeal, would be better expended to improve mental health services delivery at SCDC,” he wrote.

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Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com