Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

The ‘lack of respect for human life’ in South Carolina’s prisons


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: The ‘lack of respect for human life’ in South Carolina’s prisons

  • ‘The Sixth Amendment doesn’t shut down when the government does

  • The Appeal Podcast: Debunking the stories about federal prisoners dining on steak

  • New York City settles lawsuit over Kalief Browder’s death

  • Trans woman moved out of men’s prison in Massachusetts

  • In Wesley Bell, Ferguson hopes it has a prosecutor it can hold accountable

  • Letter to the Editor: We must view new harm reduction strategies with an open mind

In the Spotlight

The ‘lack of respect for human life’ in South Carolina’s prisons

An article last week in the Post and Courier describes a “silent epidemic of suicides” in South Carolina prisons. Prison officials put the number of confirmed deaths by suicide in 2018 at 10, with two more awaiting confirmation by local coroners, double that of any time in the past decade. In one instance, the case of 19-year-old Jamarcus Dawkins, his mother believes that the prison system, in declaring his death a suicide, is actually covering up what was a murder. He had been in prison for 45 days when he died. [Steve Bailey / Post and Courier]

It was the deadliest year in the history of South Carolina prisons. The death rate has gone up every year for the past five years even as the number of people in prison has gone down, making the state’s prisons among the deadliest in the country. In addition to the reported suicides there were at least nine homicides. And this does not include deaths in jails, where the suicide rate is far higher. [Steve Bailey / Post and Courier]

South Carolina prisons made national news last year for deadly violence in April that left seven dead. The conditions that allowed the violence at Lee Correctional Institution were clear from text messages sent that night from those inside, describing bodies piling up while guards waited hours to intervene. That indifference to the humanity of the people locked up was consistent with an environment where, as the historian Heather Ann Thompson wrote immediately after, family visits are rare, people are underfed, and “daily degradations grind away at men’s souls.” [Heather Ann Thompson / New York Times]

The Department of Corrections response to events at Lee was markedly punitive. Forty-eight people alleged to have been involved in organizing the riot were transferred to prisons in Mississippi. Corrections officials called for the jamming of contraband cell phones, arguing that they allowed for the riot to unfold. Prisons across the state were put on lockdown, punishing the few people who had any role in the violence at Lee and the many who did not. As of December, eight months later, more than 35 percent of people in prison across the state were on lockdown. A federal lawsuit alleges people were denied regular showers, access to programming, and even access to sunlight. [Emily Bohatch / The State]

And the effect of chronic lockdown on people in need of regular mental health treatment can be fatal. Bailey of the Post and Courier writes, “Lock up mentally ill people—and the prisons are packed with them—in tiny cells for long enough, make treatment more inaccessible and bad things happen.” A long-running lawsuit for mental health care resulted in a 2016 settlement. But even before the violence at Lee, staffing shortages and regular lockdowns made adequate care impossible. [Steve Bailey / Post and Courier]

A few months after the violence at Lee, incarcerated people launched a coordinated national prison strike spanning three weeks in August and September. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other strike organizers, who had been planning the strike for some time, moved the timeline up. A statement issued by the group said, “Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology.” [Natasha Lennard / The Intercept]

On the night that violence exploded at Lee, there were between two and four guards for a block of 250 people. Reforms in 2010 led to substantial reductions in the number of people in South Carolina’s prisons but staffing cuts went further. While the response from many quarters has been to call for increased staffing, law professor John Pfaff stressed the need to consider the kinds of staffing needed. Specifically, he called for increases in staff that would make it possible to offer rehabilitative and therapeutic programming, pointing to prison systems like Germany’s, where correctional staff undergo intensive training for years to be able to serve a rehabilitative function. [John Pfaff / NBC News]

And increased staffing cannot fix a problem that stems from the senseless incarceration of too many people. One in every 10 people in South Carolina prisons is serving a life sentence. In the immediate aftermath of the violence at Lee, state lawmakers proposed parole and sentencing reforms that would give more people, including elderly people, a chance of release earlier.

Reforms must also address a broken parole process. Writing in The State, two attorneys pointed to the state’s 7 percent rate of parole release, among the lowest in the nation. They said: “Experts agree that in addition to providing rehabilitative programs, the best way to improve safety is to reduce prison populations as correctional staff is reduced. The most effective way to do this in a safe and rational manner is by accelerating the rate of parole.” [Stuart Andrews and Shirene Hansotia / The State]

South Carolina’s prisons warehouse tens of thousands of people, disproportionately Black; there is next to no medical or mental health care even for those in serious need; people work without payment, in the most literal extension of slavery; and the state failed to even evacuate incarcerated people from danger zones in the lead-up to Hurricane Florence. The prison strike, an organizer told Democracy Now last summer, was “really a declaration of humanity. One participant in South Carolina told the Greenville News: “Prisons in America are a warzone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us it’s as if we are already dead. So what do we have to lose?”

Stories From The Appeal

 

Government workers protest the government shutdown outside the Federal Building Plaza in Chicago.
[Scott Olson/Getty Images]

‘The Sixth Amendment Doesn’t Shut Down When the Government Does.’ Federal defenders say the shutdown is hurting poor people stuck in jail. [Kira Lerner]

The Appeal Podcast: Debunking the Stories About Federal Prisoners Dining on Steak. As the government shutdown drags on, a number of media outlets have run stories claiming that federal prisoners are eating elaborate dinners while prison guards go unpaid. This week, a federal prisoner and a prison reform advocate join Adam to debunk this narrative, which initially went unchallenged. [Adam H. Johnson]

Stories From Around the Country

New York City settles lawsuit over Kalief Browder’s death: Kalief Browder was arrested when he was 16 and charged with stealing a backpack. After he had been jailed on Rikers Island for three years, two of them in solitary confinement, the Bronx district attorney’s office dismissed the charges against him. Two years later, he hanged himself. Browder’s story, and his death, forced New York City to adopt reforms to the use of solitary confinement. (Reforms that the city gets around, as the New York Times reported, by shipping young people elsewhere in the state so they could be jailed in isolation.) Now, nearly four years after Browder’s death, the city has agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by his estate. [Benjamin Weiser / New York Times]

Trans woman moved out of men’s prison in Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Department of Corrections, faced with a federal lawsuit, has moved a transgender woman to a women’s prison for what is believed to be the first time. The 54-year old woman, who has received hormone therapy for 40 years, was transferred in September but the transfer only became public this month. Officials initially said she could not be transferred unless she underwent genital surgery. The department would not explain the transfer but said it follows a new state law intended to protect the rights of incarcerated transgender people. The woman’s lawyer told the Boston Globe that she believed it was the first time any incarcerated person in the U.S. had been transferred to be in a prison that corresponds to their gender identity. [Michael Levenson / Boston Globe]

In Wesley Bell, Ferguson hopes it has a prosecutor it can hold accountable: Alice Speri of The Intercept takes a detailed look at St. Louis County’s new chief prosecutor Wesley Bell’s first few weeks. Bell unseated seven-term incumbent Bob McCullough, who presided over the non-indictment of the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Bell has already made significant changes, unsurprising given the progressive platform he ran on and his promises to transform the office. Equally unsurprising, he has faced significant resistance, both from line prosecutors within his office, who joined the local police union, and from police officers, who have criticized his policies. But the greater community is cheering Bell on. “His election is a testament to the hard, hard organizing work of a lot of people who really pounded the pavement,” Vernon Mitchell Jr., a Ferguson activist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis told The Intercept. “The point now is to make sure that while he has our support, we also hold him accountable.” [Alice Speri / The Intercept]

Letter to the Editor: We must view new harm reduction strategies with an open mind: New York State and city leaders’ resistance to supervised consumption services, discussed in your 1/23/19 edition, reflects a broader misunderstanding of how to respond to the opioid overdose epidemic. We recently published an issue brief that highlights what we can learn from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher reflected on the public rebuke he received from the Clinton White House for endorsing needle exchange programs and said that “if we had responded to the crack cocaine epidemic as we should have, we wouldn’t have had the opioid epidemic.” Supervised consumption services are just the type of service delivery model that we failed to invest in because we persisted in our moral view of substance use. We know this because countries in Europe experienced similar challenges with opioid consumption in the 1980s and instead of building prisons, they built dozens of safe consumption service sites. If we fail to learn from our past, perhaps we can learn from our peers? — Jeff Coots, Director of the From Punishment to Public Health initiative (P2PH) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.