DOJ opens civil rights probe of S.C. jails after deaths, attacks
Investigations into the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center and the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center were launched following allegations of inhumane conditions and violation of civil rights
By Ted Clifford
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The U.S. Department of Justice and and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina have launched a civil rights investigations into two troubled jails in South Carolina .
The investigations into the the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Richland County and the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County were announced by the justice department Thursday
“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 said in a news conference. She described investigations into the jail conditions as “a top priority” for the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.
“We understand and appreciate that life may be at stake,” Clarke said.
The investigation into whether conditions at the jail violated inmate’s civil rights comes as scrutiny has grown following deaths, attacks, escapes and poor conditions inside of the Richland County facility. The jail houses individuals arrested in the city of Columbia and Richland County, as well as inmates from some other areas in the Midlands and some individuals arrested on federal charges.
“Over the last 15 months, I‘ve held the hands of family members who had to bury their loved ones,” said Adair Buroughs , U.S. Attorney for South Carolina. “I’ve spoken to law enforcement officers that do not feel safe entering these spaces, and I’ve met with community advocates who are deeply concerned about what appear to be consistent constitutional failures in these facilities. Today I say, ‘We hear you.’”
It is the most prominent acknowledgment to date of what many have characterized as troubled conditions inside of the jails. While the investigation into the Cannon detention center will focus on medical and mental health care, the use of solitary confinement and use of force by staff, the investigation of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center will examine whether the jail failed to protect incarcerated people from violence and subjected them to dangerous living conditions.
Investigators will look to see if conditions and practices at both of the jails violate the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. The federal law, passed in 1980, gives the justice department the authority to investigate abuse and neglect in publicly run facilities. In Charleston, the Justice Department will also be looking to see whether the jail violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The populations of both jails are disproportionately people of color, Clarke said, and most inmates have not been convicted of any crime. The investigation into the Richland County jail was born, in part, from publicly available reporting and “credible allegations,” according to the Department of Justice.
“We find significant justification to open these investigations now,” Clarke said.
However, in a press conference Thursday afternoon, some Richland County officials downplayed the conditions that led to the investigation and instead portrayed the investigation as the product of legal maneuvering by attorneys who have sued the county.
“I think there is certain information, that has been provided by the media to some attorneys, that has, unfortunately, been completely wrong or incorrect,” said an attorney for Richland County, Patrick Wright.
“We actually welcome them (the Department of Justice ) to come in and have a third party, who is not biased, who will actually take a look at the facts and not just present information that will benefit attorneys and their law firms in a financial way.”
But in describing the reasons for the investigation, Clarke provided a grim list of facts: Inmates lived in cells full of mold and vermin, Clarke said. Since February 2022, there have been six deaths at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in addition to two alleged rapes, 16 confirmed assaults and two escapes. In May and June alone, nine incarcerated people were injured in a series of stabbings. She also referenced a riot, which took place in September 2021.
While Richland County officials acknowledged that the jail is not perfect, they argued that the investigation fails to take into account work that is already being done to remedy many of the issues.
“We are dedicated to ongoing reform,” said Richland County Administrator Leonard Brown. “We have implemented a comprehensive plan that includes a significant allocation of funding by the Richland County Council. This funding is dedicated to improving the conditions and safety measurements at Alvin S . Glenn, including our efforts to increase staffing levels and significant facility upgrades.”
In October, the Richland County Council approved over $3 million for a new visitor center. The county has also approved salary increases for employees, renovated the kitchen, which once received a “C” rating from health inspectors and committed to replacing locks throughout the jail.
But many believe these efforts have not gone far enough.
“Time and again, Richland County has refused to act. Now it’s the Department of Justice’s turn,” wrote the Strom Law Firm, which represents the family of Lason Butler , who died in 2021 in Alvin S. Glenn. “This investigation is about more than any single incident or the four walls of Alvin S Glenn. It’s about holding the powerful accountable when they treat citizens like they’re less than human. It’s about justice.”
“Our investigations speak to the issues at the Detention Center. Sometimes money is not the answer to a problem,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott . The Richland County Sheriff’s Department investigates incidents at the jail but has no oversight over the facility.
The Department of Justice is not looking to place either of the facilities under federal control, Clarke said, and she emphasized the department is looking to work cooperatively with jail staff and policymakers to make improvements.
The investigation will involve talking to all relevant stakeholders as well as site visits, Clarke said.
While she pledged to “limit the disruption to the running of the detention centers,” Clarke said. “We will leave no stone unturned.”
What led to this?
The trouble at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center did not begin overnight. Public attention has been drawn to the jail since a riot there in September 2021, which injured two guards. The uprising prompted the resignation of longtime jail director Ronaldo Myers.
The jail was effectively leaderless for almost two years. In August 2022, the jail hired and then promptly fired Tyrell Cato as director after it was revealed that he did not disclose he had been terminated from his previous job following an accusation of sexual harassment.
In February 2022, Lason Butler died of dehydration in solitary confinement while suffering from a serious mental health episode. His body was covered in rodent bites, and the Richland County Coroner’s Office ruled his death a homicide.
A year later, in January 2023, Antonius Randolph was beaten to death by five other inmates who broke into his cell. An investigation by the sheriff’s office found that cell doors were routinely left unlocked. While the county denied this was a practice, they admitted that inmates were able to break open the locks on their cells.
Less than a week ago, an inmate who died overnight after requesting medical help was not found by staff until the next morning, despite policy stating that staff are required to perform rounds every 30 minutes.
The bodies of inmates who died in the jail were often not found immediately, Clarke said.
More than a dozen inmates have reported being stabbed. Lawsuits described delays in medical care that led to infections and further injury. One inmate described being left alone in a cell, forced to dress his stitches with toilet paper after a stabbing.
In the first nine months of 2023, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department filed 33 incident reports following calls to respond to the jail. A review of those incident reports as well as eight federal lawsuits paint a picture of a facility where stabbings, assaults and fights are common.
In September, attorneys for an inmate alleged that he was raped by his cellmate. He was then returned to his cell where he was raped again, according to attorneys. While he declined to provide specifics, Wright said that investigators had determined there was no basis for the accusation
The State contacted Richland County Sheriff’s Department for an update on the investigation.
While county officials Thursday acknowledged that there had been serious incidents at the jail, they emphasized that none of the problems were unique to Alvin S. Glenn. The jail’s resources have been strained by a range of national trends, from shortages of jail staff around to the rising gang violence and bond reform, county officials said.
“What are the individuals who are in the facility, who are being detained, what steps are they taking to create an environment of safety?” Brown asked during the press conference. “A lot of the incidents that occur, are the detainees, unfortunately, who create a scenario where they are creating an unsafe environment for themselves or other individuals.”
In identifying staffing of the jail as a “concern,” Clarke echoed what officials and attorneys have long pointed to as one of the major problems facing the jail. The Richland County administration has pledged significant pay raises for staff and bonuses for retention.
But the staffing problems may run deeper. At a Richland County Council meeting in April, then-interim jail Director Crayman Harvey identified a need to attract more desirable job candidates in order to change the jail’s culture. Harvey was named the new jail director in August.
Since the beginning of 2023, nine Alvin S. Glenn officers have been arrested on charges including assaulting inmates and smuggling contraband, including drugs and cellphones. One lieutenant at the jail was charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct after he allegedly beat and then sexually assaulted a woman inside of her home.
The federal investigation comes after multiple inspections of Alvin S. Glenn by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The department issued an ultimatum that the county submit an improvement plan after a critical report issued in February found that for three years the jail had repeatedly violated standards ranging from chronic understaffing to unattended cells.
“While Richland County is still working on making these improvements, SCDC understands progress is being made,” a department spokesperson wrote in an email to The State.
But deaths at the jail persisted, despite a pledge to invest upwards of $12 million in the jail from county officials, leading to an unprecedented inspection in July by a team of 15 experts from the state Department of Corrections.
Another inspection of the jail by the Department of Corrections is scheduled before the end of 2023, according to a spokesperson.