COLUMBIA, S.C. — Counselors at a South Carolina prison wing where four inmates were strangled to death in a cell last year routinely announced a prisoner’s mental health diagnosis out loud to embarrass him, according to a lawsuit filed by the families of two of the slain inmates.

The lawsuits said psychiatrists did a poor job treating inmates with cursory evaluations and didn’t take into account histories of addictions or other problems when prescribing medicine.

South Carolina prison officials also failed to protect the four inmates they killed by putting them in the same wing with two more dangerous already convicted killers, Denver Simmons and Jacob Philip, who are charged with murder in their deaths.

“You’ve got the most violent criminals in the same unit with the worst-of-the-worst mental problems. If that’s not a recipe for disaster, I don’t what is,” said attorney Carter Elliott, who is representing the families.

The lawsuits were filed by relatives of 56-year-old Jimmy Ham and 35-year-old Jason Kelley this week in Richland County. They don’t ask for any specific damages.

The Corrections Department said it doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits.

Simmons told The Associated Press last summer that he and Philip lured the inmates into their cells individually and strangled them with the help of a broomstick and an extension cord so they could get the death penalty. They picked weaker, trusting inmates who weren’t as likely to be able to fight back.

The lawsuit said the inmates covered the window in the cell to hide what they were doing. The bodies of Ham, Kelley, John King and William Scruggs were only found after Simmons went to a guard at a desk and said “check my room.”

The suit includes information from a whistleblower who worked in the prison as well as other inmates. They said Simmons told a counselor he was going to kill someone in the fall of 2016 if his medication wasn’t changed.

The counselors often didn’t follow the instructions of psychiatrists or established medical practices. They were supposed to talk to inmates individually, but often just asked them questions from a checklist at the cell door, so inmates and other prison workers could hear, according to the lawsuit.

Some counselors “would even go so far as to announce an inmate’s mental health diagnosis in front of other inmates, using this information to humiliate and belittle the inmate,” according to the lawsuit.

Elliott said some people have asked him why the public should care about what led to these inmates deaths or how prisoners are treated. Outside of doing the right thing protecting their humanity, Elliott said there is another good reason.

“Most of these people are getting out of jail eventually,” Carter said. “Do you want them out there with no treatment for these serious mental illnesses?”


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