Statement on the Death of Mr. Jamal Sutherland
May 18, 2021
Disability Rights South Carolina (DRSC), the protection and advocacy system for the state, is deeply saddened over the death of Mr. Jamal Sutherland and concerned about how people with mental illness are treated in South Carolina. Mr. Sutherland was arrested while in a mental health facility for treatment. Once arrested, he was moved to a detention facility and died while officers were attempting to restrain him for a bond hearing. All too often, rather than receiving treatment, people like Mr. Sutherland are criminalized and stigmatized.
The criminal justice system is not a mental health system. Its purpose is not to treat individuals and it should not be an alternative to treatment. While law enforcement is often the first to be called when incidents occur, this should not always be the case. Some of the current alternatives:
- The Department of Mental Health (DMH) has a crisis line available across the state which can and should be utilized.
- Local mental health centers have staff who are trained to help individuals deal with trauma and can help those who are in crisis.
- DMH has a tele-psychiatry line for local hospitals.
- DRSC supports NAMI’s Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement and other first responders which teaches officers about mental illness and provides resources and tools for when they are called to deal with an individual with mental illness.
South Carolina needs to do more.
- We need to continue to support community services for people with mental illness, they should be diverted from correctional settings as much as possible.
- Jails, detention centers, and prisons should have mental health staff available 24 hours a day to address the needs of detainees with mental illness, especially those in crisis.
- More support should be provided for local teams made up of law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals to respond to calls involving people with mental illness.
- Officers in all settings should be trained in Crisis Intervention and de-escalation.
- Individuals in a treatment facility should not be arrested and removed from that facility to a correctional facility.
South Carolina law already prohibits imprisonment of people with mental illness for safekeeping and allows for the examination and transfer for care/treatment of those who are mentally ill or who have an intellectual disability. (SC Code Sec. 44-23-220). If an individual in treatment is involved in an incident, staff should be trained to de-escalate the situation rather than calling law enforcement. If law enforcement is called and an individual in treatment is charged with a criminal offense, they should be allowed to remain in the facility for treatment and provided access to the justice system through other means such as video hearings. By doing this, South Carolina will be providing fair and safe access to treatment and justice for all its citizens.