Attorney: 4 SC inmate deaths show need for better mental care

An inmate's family attorney says the killings cast a "bright light on just how bad it is to be a mentally ill inmate"

By Seanna Adcox 
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — An attorney for the family of one of four convicts strangled in a prison cell says the killings cast a "bright light on just how bad it is to be a mentally ill inmate" in South Carolina.

The killings last Friday represent a "tremendous step back" after the state's prison agency agreed last year to improve treatment of mentally ill inmates, Carter Elliott told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

That settlement, which resolved a 2005 lawsuit, requires reforms over several years.

Elliott is representing the family of 56-year-old Jimmy Ham, who was projected for release in November after serving time for burglary and violent assault convictions.

According to arrest warrants, two convicted murderers separately lured Ham and three others into a cell at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia last Friday morning, where they worked together to attack and strangle them.

The Kirkland prison, a maximum-security site, serves several roles in South Carolina's system, including a metal health unit considered one step below the agency's psychiatric hospital, also located at the site.

All six were housed in the same dorm. Denver Simmons, 35, and Jacob Philip, 26, face additional murder charges after confessing to Friday's killings, according to the warrants. They'd been assigned to that dorm since November and June, respectively, said Corrections spokeswoman Sommer Sharpe.

"These men were lured to their deaths in a unit not being properly monitored," Elliott said.

Mentally ill inmates should be regularly checked on by both security officers and counselors, according to Elliott. He did not specify Ham's mental illness.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts has said all four were killed within a 30-minute span.

They were found dead. Elliott, legislators and family members are questioning how the attack had gone unnoticed.

At the time, two officers and seven other employees were assigned to the dorm housing 139 inmates. The inmates are locked into their cells only at night, Sharpe said. She declined to specify the roles of the "non-security staff" or answer other questions about the investigation.

Simmons and Philip already are imprisoned without the possibility of parole. Each killed a mother and child. In 2007, Simmons fatally shot an acquaintance and, after buying pizza with her stolen debit card, her 13-year-old son. Philip strangled his girlfriend and her 8-year-old daughter in 2013, when the sailor was training at the Nuclear Power Training School near Charleston.

Philip pleaded guilty but mentally ill after telling evaluators a voice had screamed at him to "end her." According to court documents, he was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder and bulimia. He'd carved "I hate me" and "obey" into his arms while in jail. His mental evaluation included that he'd choked an inmate at the command of voices in his head after not receiving his medication for two days. "I had nothing against him," he told the examiner.

Of the four inmates killed Friday, only one was also serving life without parole. William Scruggs pleaded guilty to murder but insane for fatally shooting a disabled veteran in 2009. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and personality disorder.

The prison agency's 2016 settlement resolved a lawsuit filed by a statewide nonprofit, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, and set a four-year timeline for reform.

The lawsuit alleged a lack of effective counseling and too much reliance on tactics such as isolation and force to subdue mentally ill prisoners. In his 2014 ruling, Judge Michael Baxley chided Corrections for failing to screen new inmates for mental health problems, properly administer medication and prevent suicide.

The settlement calls for inspections every few months to gauge whether benchmarks are met. A report from the latest inspection is not yet available.

"We're at the early stages of a very complex implementation plan," said Stuart Andrews, the attorney who represented mental health advocates.

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