- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A judge on Friday denied a request by South Carolina prison officials that he should reconsider a ruling on how to deal with mental health treatment behind bars, saying he stood by his decision in favor of inmates who sued nearly a decade ago.

During a hearing on Friday, Circuit Judge Michael Baxley said that he disagreed with the Department of Corrections’ arguments that his ruling didn’t address in writing a number of the agency’s defenses and castigated the agency for what he characterized as a “completely recalcitrant” approach to the litigation.

“This is why you have the hard and direct and comprehensive order that you have,” Baxley said.

Earlier this year, Baxley sided with inmates who, along with an independent nonprofit group called Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, sued the agency in 2005. His ruling chided the Corrections 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 on how to deal with better serving its mentally ill inmates.

During a 2012 trial that lasted more than a month, Corrections officials had 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.

The agency says they’ve 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 and 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.

On Friday, Corrections attorney Andrew Lindemann made it clear that he wanted Baxley to definitively rule on certain issues, like the agency’s argument that the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing to bring the case, so that he can bring them up on appeal. One of those issues, Lindemann said, was the contention that judiciary itself has a limited ability to order an executive agency, like the Corrections Department, to make changes.

“People are clearly dying at the Department of Corrections because they lack basic health care,” Baxley said, before denying the motion 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?”

“You’re clearly coming in, with all due respect, and attempting to micromanage the affairs of the executive branch,” Lindemann argued.

Baxley gave Dan Westbrook, an attorney representing the nonprofit group and inmates who sued, five days to send him a proposed order putting into writing the rulings issued Friday. Mediation between the agency and Westbrook’s clients is ongoing, and both he and Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said they were encouraged by that process.

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

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