A court ruling out of South Carolina this week deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the use of solitary confinement and other brutal conditions and practices on the hundreds of thousands of people with mental illness who are held in our nation’s prisons. The best reporting on the ruling comes from The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, in a lengthy piece titled “When Good People Do Nothing: The Appalling Story of South Carolina’s Prisons.”
On Wednesday, in one of the most wrenching opinions you will ever read, a state judge in Columbia ruled that South Carolina prison officials were culpable of pervasive, systemic, unremitting violations of the state’s constitution by abusing and neglecting mentally ill inmates. The judge, Michael Baxley, a decorated former legislator, called it the “most troubling” case he ever had seen and I cannot disagree. Read the ruling. It’s heartbreaking.
The evidence is now sadly familiar to anyone who follows these cases: South Carolina today mistreats these ill people without any evident traces of remorse. Even though there are few disputed material issues of law or fact in the case, even though the judge implored the state to take responsibility for its conduct, South Carolina declared before the sun had set Wednesday that it would appeal the ruling—and thus likely doom the inmates to years more abuse and neglect. That’s not just “deliberate indifference,” the applicable legal standard in these prison abuse cases. That is immoral.
But what makes this ruling different from all the rest—and why it deserves to become a topic of national conversation—is the emphasis Judge Baxley placed upon the failure of the good people of South Carolina to remedy what they have known was terribly wrong since at least 2000. Where was the state’s medical community while the reports piled up chronicling the mistreatment of these prisoners? Where was the state’s legal community as government lawyers walked into court year after year with frivolous defenses for prison policies? Where were the religious leaders, the ones who preach peace and goodwill?
No one in power came forward. Even as the evidence became more clear and compelling that something horrible was happening inside those prisons.
Cohen delves into the history of the problem, from the early 1990s, when “South Carolina did reasonably good job of caring for its mentally ill prisoners,” through decades of growing prison populations and decreasing budgets for prison health care. He traces more than a decade of scathing reports, lawsuits, and whistleblower efforts that clearly documented what was going on in South Carolina’s prisons.
Judge Baxley wrote in his opinion: “The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.” Cohen provides more detail as to “what these words mean”:
They mean that one mentally ill inmate, James Wilson, was kept in solitary confinement for at least 2,491 consecutive days. It means that an intellectually disabled (and schizophrenic) man named Jerome Laudman was abused and neglected, and then left to rot in his own feces and vomit, until he died of a heart attack. It means that force was used 81 times on a severely mentally ill inmate named James Howard. It means that some mentally ill inmates were restrained at length in what they called a “crucifix position.”