- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s prisons agency on Friday appealed a ruling on how to deal with mental health treatment behind bars, making official what director Bryan Stirling has said for months the agency planned to do.

The appeal challenges a ruling by Circuit Judge Michael Baxley, who earlier this year sided with a group of inmates and an independent nonprofit group called Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. Those entities sued the Corrections Department 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.

During a 2012 trial, Corrections officials disputed the claims, denying that any inmates’ constitutional rights were being violated and noting that the agency had no legal obligation to implement any of the recommendations from reports cited in the lawsuit against it.

Baxley’s ruling chided the department for failures in areas including screening new inmates for mental health problems, properly administering medication and preventing suicide, giving the agency six months to come up with fixes. In March, he denied Corrections’ request that he reconsider his ruling.

“People are clearly dying at the Department of Corrections because they lack basic health care,” Baxley said at that hearing, before denying a motion by the agency’s attorney to reconsider that issue. “What would you have the court do, sir? Would you have the court walk away and leave it as it is?”

The department said that it’s made a number of fixes over the years in how inmate mental health is handled, like consulting with the state Department of Mental Health on evaluating Corrections’ policies. The agency also said it is using $1 million in recurring funds to pay for more staff, training and specialized programming to hopefully reduce mentally ill inmates’ time in isolation units due to disciplinary infractions.

A spokeswoman for the agency said Monday that Corrections officials were simply following through on a previously asserted desire to appeal, while also continuing to pursue mediation discussions.

“It’s been productive, and we hope it will continue to be productive,” Givens said, of mediation.

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

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