South Carolina prison conditions on trial

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Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities began hearings February 6 at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where it is arguing that South Carolina’s prison conditions for people with mental illnesses violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Guy on floor next row of prison cells

“Cruel and Unusual Punishment”

The disability advocacy group filed a class action lawsuit against the state in 2005, following three major reports criticizing the state’s handling of its prison conditions. For Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, the conditions have worsened in the years since.

“For years the Defendants have known their system of providing medical treatment for the mentally ill was in a state of crisis, a state exacerbated in recent years by inadequate funding from the Department,” the advocacy group stated in the most recent complaint. “Despite this knowledge, the Defendants have failed to take adequate steps to remedy the situation.

“The Defendant’s deliberate indifference to the mental health needs of inmates had resulted and continues to result in the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment and the needless infliction of pain and suffering.”

In a report from October 2011, the advocacy group details a system where more than 2,500 inmates with mental illnesses receive minimal health care needs due to a support staff lacking in size and proper training.

“Persons suffering from mental illness are vulnerable under the best of circumstances,” the advocacy group argued, according to an Associated Press article. “In a prison setting, however, inmates with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse.”

South Carolina prison officers also “routinely uses excessive force against inmates with mental illness.” According to the report, “dangerous levels of chemical agents” are often deployed on inmates, as well as pepper spray canisters designed for crowd control, instead of regular, personal-sized canisters.

Many of these inmates languish in the jail for years. In a review of more than 100 disciplinary records of people with mental illness detailed in the report, nearly all the individuals spent more than a year in solitary confinement, with more than 20 percent being segregated for  more than five years in almost absolute isolation.

Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.

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