Jerome Laudman, a schizophrenic, intellectually disabled inmate in South Carolina, was placed in solitary confinement, although he was neither aggressive nor threatening. During his transfer to the “Lee Supermax” facility, he was sprayed with chemical munitions and physically abused by a correctional officer. Although the transfer should have been recorded, the videotape turned up blank. While Laudman was confined naked in his cell, officers observed that Laudman had stopped eating and taking his medication, and appeared sick and weak. They did not report it. A week later, he was found laying in his own feces with 15-20 trays of molding food in his cell, vomiting. Nurses and an officer refused to retrieve his body. When two inmates were eventually sent to remove him, he was transferred unconscious to a hospital, where he died of a heart-attack.
Laudman is one of many mentally ill South Carolina inmates placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, subject to improper use of force and grave medical neglect, who suffered or are at risk of suffering preventable deaths, according to a chilling judicial opinion issued Wednesday concluding that the prison system’s mental health treatment is “inherently flawed and systemically deficient in all major areas.” Circuit Judge J. Michael Baxley called the case the worst he had seen in his 14 years on the bench.
Other plaintiffs in the case were held naked in restraint chairs for hours at a time without treatment of their injuries, left to urinate in place and forced to stay in a painful “crucifix” position for hours. In one instance, blood pooled beneath an inmate held in a restraint; in another, an inmate’s intestine was protruding from his abdomen as officers tightened restraints surrounding the wound. One inmate was restrained with his arms in a twisted position, soaked in water, and then left outside on a December night.
A corrections expert who has assessed thousands of uses of pepper spray testified that he had never seen pepper spray gas be so frequently misused by a corrections officers. Evidence revealed countless cover-ups of these instances, with false call logs and failure to check on suicidal inmates leading to several deaths. In one instance, an inmate’s aunt called to warn of a “goodbye letter,” but officers did not check on the inmate until two days later, when they found him dead in his cell from a drug overdose. Overall, Baxter found, these incidents were “unreported, uninvestigated, and unmanaged.”
This treatment in cells described as “extremely cold and inordinately filthy, often with the blood and feces of previous occupants smeared on the floor and walls,” was particularly egregious because it targeted those with serious mental illness, who, as in prisons around the country, are vastly over-represented in the prison population. Any solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates at all has been deemed unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment by several federal courts and the Department of Justice. But rather than avoiding solitary confinement for the mentally ill, corrections officials subjected them to confinement at rates 2.5 times greater than that of the general population, and for significantly longer periods of time. One plaintiff in the case was held for 2,565 consecutive days.
Corrections officials have been on notice about these violations for almost 15 years. In 1999, a consultant hired to assess the system’s mental health system described it as in “profound crisis.” In 2000, a legislative committee concluded that the prison provided inadequate treatment and often left inmates with mental illness “worse off than when they entered.” Reports describing the mental health treatment in prisons as dire continued virtually every year since, and have been met with only “half-hearted indifference,” Baxley found.
In spite of these findings, the state has continued to fight these allegations “tooth and nail” for eight years. Baxley ordered a laundry list of immediate reforms and monitoring. But he anticipates the state will appeal the litigation that, he laments, has already cost the state hundreds of thousands dollars that could have been better spent on mental health services.