Prison System Appealing Mental Health Ruling

11:04 AM, Jan 22, 2014   |    comments
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By Tim Smith, The Greenville News

COLUMBIA - The state prison system is asking a circuit judge who ruled that the treatment of mentally ill inmates violates constitutional standards to amend his order and address various defense arguments that lawyers for the state contend weren't properly addressed in the order.

Lawyers for the state Department of Corrections argue in a motion filed Tuesday that Judge Michael Baxley's Jan. 8 order in the case didn't address a number of defense arguments, including the failure of the plaintiffs to prove legal standing, that the plaintiffs' case "gives rise to a non-justiciable political question beyond the control of the S.C. Department of Corrections," and the application of the separation of powers doctrine.

William Davidson, Andrew Lindemann, Kenneth Woodington and Daniel Plyler, lawyers representing the prison system, also argue that the judge in his order incorrectly viewed the evidence based on a "minimally adequate" standard even though the plaintiffs had dismissed their minimally adequate claim and that the order "is without specific legal support, as shown by the fact that it contains no discussion at all of the specific facts of any decided case, state or federal, that would serve as a comparison with the specific facts of the present case."

The order erroneously relies exclusively on either the opinions of plaintiff experts or the American Corrections Association Standards, the lawyers for the prison system argue.

Even if the plaintiffs presented evidence of constitutional violations, the state argues, the remedies ordered by Baxley "are far in excess of what might be necessary to remedy any alleged violations."

Baxley concluded in his order that the seriously mentally ill in the state's prisons aren't being properly cared for and some have lost their lives.

"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," he wrote.

Baxley detailed a host of allegations about the treatment of the prison system's mentally ill in his 45-page ruling, cases in which inmates were placed in solitary for years, put naked into restraining chairs in painful positions and left naked and in filth in cold, empty cells.

The prison system announced on the day of the ruling that it would appeal. It subsequently released a list of actions it had taken or was taking to improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

The ruling was the result of a 2005 lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates by the Protection and Advocacy of People with Disabilities and tried in 2012.

Dan Westbrook, a Columbia lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said he hadn't yet read the prison system's motion but was aware it had been filed.

"Our hope is that the judge denies their motion and rules on it quickly," he said.

Many of the arguments presented in the motion filed Tuesday were presented either in trial or in a Nov. 11 letter to the judge from the prison system asking him to address the issues in his order, lawyers for the state argued.

Westbrook said the plaintiffs' reply to that letter was that either the issues had already been ruled upon during the trial by Baxley or were raised in closing arguments and didn't require a ruling.

Lawyers for the state argue that Baxley hadn't ruled on the issues with a final, written ruling.

"The court's continued refusal to address these legal defenses, which importantly include issues of subject matter jurisdiction such as the plaintiffs' lack of standing to proceed and other issues related to whether a 'case or controversy' exists, results in a denial of the defendants' due process rights," the motion argues.

Baxley, the state argues, deprives the defendants of "fundamental fairness by ruling on the plaintiff's allegations but refusing to rule on the defendants' defenses, including important jurisdictional, justiciability and other constitutional issues."

The judge also erred, the lawyers for the prison system argue, in holding that the court has the "inherent power - and responsibility - to see that the imprisonment of (an) inmate complies with constitutional mandates."

The judge also erred, the lawyers for the prison system argue, in holding that the court has the "inherent power - and responsibility - to see that the imprisonment of (an) inmate complies with constitutional mandates."

"No such inherent authority exists under South Carolina law," the prison system's lawyers argued.

The lawyers are asking that Baxley amend his order and rule in favor of the defendants.

The motion automatically stays the appeal process until Baxley rules upon it. If he denies the motion, the state will have 30 days to file its appeal, a spokesman for the prison system said.

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