Justice Department opens civil rights probes into South Carolina jails beset by deaths and violence

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Two South Carolina jails where incarcerated people have died violently at the hands of employees or others held behind bars are under federal investigation, the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday.

Officials said the civil rights probes will examine the conditions at detention centers in the southern state's urban hubs of Charleston and Columbia. They cited the deaths of a mentally ill Black man stunned 10 times by two jail employees who kneeled on his back until he stopped breathing and another man beaten to death by five attackers locked in cells with unsecured doors.

“People confined in local jails across our country do not abandon their civil and constitutional rights at the jailhouse door," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke told reporters Thursday. "Incarceration should never carry with it the risk of death or serious harm.”

Eight people jailed at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center have died since 2022, according to Clarke. Potential discrimination against incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities, access to medical care, solitary confinement practices and staff use of force are the focus of the investigation into the Charleston County jail.

That's where Jamal Sutherland had been booked after a fight at the center treating his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Two deputies repeatedly stunned the 31-year-old man one day later when he refused to leave for a court appearance. Video later showed Sutherland saying “I can't breathe” while forced to the ground in handcuffs.

A 28-year-old Black man with schizophrenia repeatedly sat in his own feces while left in isolation before his death last year that the local coroner attributed to “gross medical neglect,” The Post & Courier reported.

Clarke reported six known deaths since February 2022 at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia. Investigators will look into whether people there are adequately protected from violence and subjected to dangerous living conditions.

Antonius Randolph, 29, lay dead in his own blood at the Richland County jail for roughly 18 hours just six days after his arrest on charges of sexual assault and robbery. Lason Butler, a 27-year-old Black man who died of dehydration last year, was found with fresh rat bites. He'd reportedly lost 40 pounds (18 kilograms) during the two weeks he spent in a cell lacking running water.

The capital city jail has also recently seen two escapes, one riot, 16 confirmed reports of stabbings or assaults and two alleged rapes, according to Clarke.

Thursday's announcement followed calls from civil rights attorneys for investigations into the facilities. Butler's lawyers accused local officials of neglecting a jail they described as a “death trap" in a Thursday news release.

Richland County Administrator Leonardo Brown told reporters Thursday that the council has allocated funding to increase staffing and upgrade facilities. Brown committed to holding individuals responsible for any wrongdoing uncovered and blamed some violence on gang members who continue their “activity" behind bars.

U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs said the decentralized system of detention centers — often run by counties or their sheriffs — makes oversight difficult. Officials do not plan to ask that the jails be placed under federal control.

Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano said she welcomes the investigation and emphasized her support for employees who go “above and beyond” their duty to provide mental health assistance in a statement released Thursday morning. Graziano also called on state officials to help “stop the dumping of the mentally ill in jails.”

ACLU of South Carolina Legal Director Allen Chaney said the announcement should compel officials to reconsider the use of jails as a “catchall solution” for addiction, poverty and homelessness.

“Hopefully the weight of a federal civil rights investigation will make lawmakers evaluate whether their resources might be better invested in programs that reduce drug addiction and homelessness rather than resorting to the harmful, ineffective, and inhumane system of arrest-and-release,” Chaney said in a statement.


Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.