By Tim Smith, Greenville News
COLUMBIA - A mental health advocate has collected more than 100 signatures from Upstate lawmakers, County Council members, mental health officials and others asking that the state drop its appeal of a judge's order last week that the prison system develop a plan to improve its treatment of inmates who have serious mental illness.
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Paton Blough of Greenville, a mental health advocate who founded the website rehinge. com, said he believes the state can only effectively focus on improving its care of the mentally ill in prison when it stops fighting Judge Michael Baxley's ruling.
Dr. James Hayes of Greenville, president of the state board for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, signed the petition and also said the state should drop the appeal.
"If we appeal this, it will be one more reason not to do some meaningful reform," he toldThe Greenville News.
"It's critically important that our prisoners with mental illness get the proper care. We would treat our animals in shelters better than prisoners with mental illness have been treated in the past."
Hayes said the state has improved but the judge's recommendations are "reasonable and logical."
"I think it would be imperative for the state not to waste more money and time," he said. "The money spent on attorneys could be spent on psychologists and other resources for our prison system."
Baxley last week issued a 45-page ruling in response to a 2005 lawsuit that found the prison system has repeatedly violated the rights of mentally ill inmates, who in some cases lost their lives. He gave the prison system six months to develop a detailed plan of improvements.
The agency on the same day announced it would appeal his ruling and later released a list of things it has done in recent years to improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates.
Blough's petition is addressed to Bryan Stirling, director of the prison system, and to Gov. Nikki Haley.
"As leaders of our state - who represent the fiscal interests of the taxpayers - the responsible move would be to use your powers to drop the appeal of this ruling and use your influence to make these necessary changes," the petition states.
"Instead of spending hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars on lawyers fighting for the status quo, please consider dropping your stance and working to reform the Department of Corrections from within."
While reforming the prison system "is a tough sale in a conservative state," doing nothing will eventually cost taxpayers more, the petition states.
Citing calculations from the National Institute of Mental Health, the petititon states "the true cost to taxpayers could easily be four to six times higher than this figure. If inmates could receive proper care, there is a much higher chance that upon release, they can stop the staggeringly expensive and vicious cycle of incarceration, and instead, become productive, healthy, voting and tax-paying citizens."
Haley on Monday was asked about the judge's ruling and said it deals with dated allegations and the state has "come a long way" since they surfaced in a 2005 lawsuit.
"That was a case from 10 years ago that related to about five to 10 years prior to that," she said. "We have come a long way in 10 years when those findings were found."
But the leader of an advocacy organization that filed the suit toldThe News she doesn't agree that the allegations behind the judge's order were dated.
"When we went to trial two years ago, things were very similar to where they had been when the lawsuit was filed," said Gloria Prevost, executive director for the nonprofit group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc. "I have heard nothing to indicate there have been major changes."
Blough, who said he is scheduled to meet with one of Haley's aides, said if the prison system has made major improvements, it should drop the appeal and then outline its improvements for the judge.
State Rep. Dan Hamilton of Greenville, who signed the petition, said from the research he has done, the ruling was fair.
"I feel like rather than the state continue to spend money to defend the lawsuit, we should do what we can to address mental health issues in the prisons," he said.
"I think the state needs to act to be sure all of its prisoners, regardless of their capacity or mental issues, need to be in a safe place."
State Rep. Wendy Nanney of Greenville, who also signed the petititon, said she isn't aware of all the details in the case.
"At this point we do need to address the mental health issue in our prison system," she said.
Some lawmakers told The News last week they have lots of questions for the Department of Corrections over the judge's ruling but believe the state shouldn't wait for the courts to complete the appeals process before taking some action to improve treatment of the inmates.
State Sen. Tom Corbin of Travelers Rest said he plans to sign the petititon.
"I think it's the correct thing to do," he said. "How much money do you want to spend fighting something just to find out that it's a lot cheaper on the taxpayers to just implement policies to deal with it?"