Richland County can waste time, money in court – or start fixing the jail, attorneys say

A group that’s suing Richland County said it would rather focus on fixing the county jail than wage a prolonged court case that would cost the county money and may result in more suffering and death.

Disability Rights South Carolina filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court against Richland County, claiming that people with mental illnesses are treated inhumanely and subjected to torturous conditions.

One of the group’s attorneys, Stuart Andrews, called on Richland County to meet with Disability Rights SC and its team of lawyers to “address the long-term, systemic problems within” the jail.

“The county can resist that and fight us in court for 10 years and waste countless dollars and, more importantly, waste countless lives or they can sit down with us in a serious way” to find out how to invest in the jail and create solutions to issues, Andrews said, noting that experts on fixing the problems are readily available.

Andrews, Nekki Shutt and Sarah J. M. Cox of the Burnett Shutt & McDaniel law firm are representing Disability Rights SC.

The jail’s inhumane treatment, according to the suit, includes detainees being locked up in “filthy” cells; being strapped to chairs for prolonged periods; being housed in cramped shower cells, and not being provided medications. Also, detainees deemed suicidal are unsupervised.

Beyond asking the county to immediately fix those and other claims, the group of lawyers and the executive director of Disability Rights SC offered long-term solutions at a Thursday news conference for the problems at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

The problems at the jail are magnified because of a “broken system” of mental health services in society generally, Beth Franco, Disability Rights’ executive director, said.

“What we continue to advocate and fight for is to have more cohesive and community based services,” Franco said. “People with mental illness and disabilities have a right to appropriate services.”

A jail is not an appropriate service for people with mental illnesses, Franco said.

When suspects who have received mental health services and treatment before their arrests, the jail does not check into that care when the detainees are brought to the detention center, according to Andrews. Instead, the jail relies solely on what the detainee says about their own mental health, which is not an effective means of treating someone.

During the news conference, Franco and Andrews described a disconnect between the jail and community mental health providers.

Andrews called it a “complete absence of coordination.”

The county needs to work with hospitals, substance abuse rehabilitation centers and other mental health service providers to ensure detainees with mental illness get the treatment they need.

As is, the jail does not request any available mental health records of detainees from local providers.

Andrews said the county needs to create “a seamless web” to deliver mental health services.

Immediate fixes needed

While the group asked for better coordination between mental health providers and the jail as a long-term solution, it also demanded some immediate changes by the county.

The county must stop housing people with mental illness in the jail’s Special Housing Unit, or SHU, which was described as a “dungeon” and “filthy” place. The county needs to move people with mental illnesses who aren’t in the SHU for disciplinary reasons to other units or out of the jail.

The jail is not properly supervising people on suicide watch, Andrews and Cox said. The group asked that this be fixed right away, and if the detention center doesn’t have to staff to fix it, people on suicide watch should be moved to a facility where they can be monitored.

The lawsuit claims that people with mental illnesses in the jail are restrained in chairs and in narrow shower stalls with little ability to move for prolonged periods, sometimes days. Andrews said that the group has strong evidence of this.

Restraint chairs and shower stalls, as well as long solitary confinements, for people with mental illnesses must be stopped now, the group said.

Mental health medications need to be provided regularly at the jail, the group said.

The types of practices at Alvin S. Glenn have been ruled illegal by courts when found in other jails and prisons, Andrews said.