- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - After nearly a decade of litigation, next week might offer a chance to begin hashing out court-ordered ways to improve the care of mentally ill South Carolina inmates.

On Tuesday, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling wrote to advocates for mentally ill inmates who have sued the agency, saying that he is willing to meet on Feb. 24 to begin talks on how to deal with court-ordered repairs.

The inmates sued the agency in 2005 over alleged constitutional violations, including a lack of effective counseling and overreliance on tactics such as isolation and pepper spray to subdue unruly, mentally ill prisoners.

Earlier this year, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley sided with the inmates in 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. The judge gave the agency six months to come up with a plan to fix these and other problems, and assigned court-appointed monitors to report back to him on the agency’s progress.

Since that ruling, Stirling and the advocates who sued on the inmates’ behalf have corresponded in letters over possibly sitting down to discuss what’s next in the litigation that began nearly a decade ago. Earlier this month, Stirling proposed that both sides reopen formal mediation, a process that initially started in January 2012.

“I firmly believe that it is in both sides’ best interests to try to avoid the time, expense, and uncertainties of an appeal and move forward with trying to resolve this litigation,” he wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to attorneys for the inmates. “SCDC wants to do all that it can within its finite resources and capabilities to properly house, treat, and secure inmates with mental illness while balancing the safety of our officers/institutions and the public safety.”

Advocates have said that they would rather sit down more informally, without a mediator present. On Feb. 17, Gloria Prevost of Protection and Advocacy wrote back to Stirling, proposing that the parties meet on Feb. 24 to discuss how to repair the system.

“We have been serious adversaries for nine years,” Prevost wrote. “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. … It is time for the Department to commit itself to the fundamental change necessary to protect both individuals in need of medical care and safety.”

Prevost also urged Stirling not to appeal the case, something that the prison agency has said it will do if Baxley refuses to amend his ruling to address defense arguments, such as that the plaintiffs failed to prove legal standing and the application of the separation of powers doctrine.

Saying the state has already spent more than $800,000 defending itself, the Corrections Department has released a list of actions taken in recent years to address the handling of mentally ill inmates. The department said its actions have included consulting with the state Department of Mental Health on evaluating Corrections’ policies, and using $1 million in recurring funds to pay for more staff, training and specialized programming. The agency said the latter action would hopefully reduce mentally ill inmates’ time in isolation units due to disciplinary infractions.

In his most recent correspondence sent Tuesday, Stirling reiterated his argument that mediation is the best path forward and “does not have to be an adversarial process.”

Such a framework, Stirling wrote, “protects all parties and allows them to have candid settlement negotiations while maintaining the confidentiality of those discussions.”

Attorneys for the inmates did not immediately respond Tuesday to Stirling’s latest letter. Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, the law firm that has represented the inmates’ interests during the nine-year case, is also representing the estate of at least one mentally ill inmate that is suing the state prisons agency over the man’s treatment - and eventual death - while in custody.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP