Mentally ill and locked up in South Carolina

PICKENS COUNTY, S.C. (WSPA) – May is Mental Illness Awareness month.

Often when mental illnesses go untreated, people don’t get the help they need and end up getting in trouble, landing these people in the criminal justice system.

Being locked up and mentally ill affects thousands of people across the South Carolina, including some Upstate families.

“Some days he’s OK,” said Melissa Dowell whose brother is currently in the Pickens County Jail. “Other days you can see how he lashes out.”

Her brother, now 24-year-old, Thomas Stinson was arrested in 2014 charged with arson and burglary. He’s accused of burning down two homes and a couple outhouses on South 2nd Street in Easley.  He’s been in jail ever since.

“It’s hard for me just to not see him, not hang out with him, I look at him through a glass,” Dowell said.

However, Stinson isn’t regular inmate. He’s part of the 15 percent of inmates in South Carolina who have a mental illness.

Mental Health organizations like the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) say inmates who are mentally ill are likely to stay in jail two and half times longer than other criminals because they’re not getting the treatment they need, causing them to have behavioral issues.

“He had started acting out with certain things with the officers,” Cassandra Gray, a family friend of Stinson.

Last year, doctors declared Stinson incompetent to stand trial. Although, his records were never released to his family because of his age, so they still aren’t sure what mental illness he was diagnosed with having.

In February, Stinson was granted an Order of Commitment into a mental health facility, but he’s still not receiving the help he needs.

“We’ve been waiting on a bed for six months,” his mother, Lynda Braden said.

The executive director of NAMI South Carolina, Bill Lindsey, said there is a tremendous backlog in the system.

“We’ve been having more and more inmates that need evaluations, and the amount of clinicians has not increased,” Lindsey said.

NAMI said even though situations have gotten better for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system across the state, many jails are still understaffed and unequipped.

“What other illnesses out there do you have to wait to be treated?” Lindsey said.

South Carolina was part of a decade long federal civil lawsuit that was settled a couple years ago about the mistreatment of the mentally ill in jails and prisons. Since then, they’ve made changes, including Mental Health Courts which deals with non-violent mentally ill offenders.

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