Lawyers work on getting S.C. to improve mental health treatment of inmates

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Beth Padgett & Daniel Westbrook will speak at 2nd Annual Southeastern Symposium on Mental Health.

Between 15 to 20 percent of South Carolina’s 21,000 prisoners have serious mental illnesses and are in need of treatment and services that the state has historically not addressed, says Daniel J. Westbrook, an attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia.

Westbrook will speak about “Mental Health Treatment in South Carolina Prisons” at the 2nd Annual Southeastern Symposium on Mental Health on May 12 in the Hyatt Regency Greenville.

“The conditions for mentally ill inmates in South Carolina prisons have been a real problem for at least the last 17 years,” Westbrook says. “That’s when the first of a series of studies were made that pointed out really horrible conditions for mentally ill inmates in the state.”

Westbrook’s law firm led an effort — involving a lawsuit — to force the state prison system to reform. “We filed a lawsuit in 2015. It was tried in 2012. Judge Michael Baxley issued an important and scathing order in 2014, saying the systematic deficiencies in the system, providing treatment of mentally ill inmates in South Carolina, was constitutionally deficient,” Westbrook says.

For two years, there were negotiations over how the state would prepare a plan to correct its problems.

“It’s a slow process, and improvements have been made, but there still is a long way to go,” Westbrook says.

South Carolina attorneys and others can learn more about how their legal work might improve the state’s mental health issues at the lunchtime legal session of the symposium.

Admission is $60, including lunch. Lawyers can earn continuing legal education credits for the two lectures, including Westbrook’s luncheon keynote address and the talk on “Making the Case: Supporting Mental Health in the Legal Profession,” by Beth Padgett, assistant director of Lawyers Helping Lawyers, South Carolina Bar Association in Columbia.

The legal sessions are sponsored by Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Reservations are required.

Legal issues involving people with mental illness is something that concerns everyone, Westbrook says.

“There needs to be some place for people with serious mental illness, and who do not have family and homes, can go to be taken care of,” he says. “They need food and shelter, and if the state doesn’t provide that, then they wind up in prison.”

The annual Southeastern Symposium on Mental Health will be May 12 and 13 at the Hyatt. Tipper Gore, former second lady and mental health advocate, will deliver the keynote address May 13.

For more information about the symposium, titled, “#MindsMatter! Mental Health Across the Lifespan: Ending Stigma through Research, Education, and Practice,” visit the website www.sesmh.org or contact Christine Marsh at info@sesmh.org or by calling 864-455-7808.

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