Reports: S.C. jail was understaffed day of riot, officer attacks

When inmates let themselves out of cells, officers on duty were told to "do nothing but observe" due to lack of staff

By David Travis Bland
The State 
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Richland County jail didn't have enough officers on duty to subdue unruly inmates in the moments before two officers were attacked in September, leaving one bloodied and "lifeless" in the cell block and the other emotionally scarred, according to reports.

The new details of the Sept. 3 riot at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center are revealed in reports obtained by The State under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The shortage of officers on the morning of the attack speaks to general understaffing at the jail, which is creating a dangerous situation for officers, detainees and lawyers, according to sources.

"The working conditions (for jail staff) and the living conditions for the detainees are horrible," said said Vincent Giebler, a former officer at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. (Richland County Sheriff's Office)

A former officer spoke to The State about the perilous lack of staff at the detention center.

"That could have been me on that floor," said Vincent Giebler, who worked at the detention center from January until mid-November. "The working conditions (for jail staff) and the living conditions for the detainees are horrible."

'Do nothing but observe'

On Sept. 3, Giebler would have been guarding Hotel unit, the name of the cell block where the attack happened. But he had requested off that day. He was getting married.

On his wedding day, he was getting calls from friends telling him about the attack. After seeing video of an officer being punched, kicked and stomped in the head and beaten with trash cans and chairs, Giebler said his new wife asked him to quit the job.

"If (the detention center) would have been fully staffed, we would have had enough people to go in and retrieve him," Giebler said. "They preach that we're supposed to play as a team but how do you get in a situation where you can't get that officer out?"

About 8 a.m., before the attack began, an officer checked a computer inside Hotel unit, according to reports. The computer, which controlled cell doors, showed that a detainee's door wasn't locked. She checked the door, and a detainee and another officer told her the lock was broken.

Later, police reported that the detainee manipulated his cell door lock and went to the computer that controlled the other locks and opened the other cell doors.

Detainees got out of their cells, reports said. They covered their faces with garments and other cloths as if they were preparing to get sprayed with mace. The detainees milled around Hotel unit and refused to go into their cells, a captain wrote.

In a camera monitoring room known as "central control," an officer noticed the inmates out of their cells. She reported the issue to a captain, who went to Hotel unit. The captain told the Hotel unit officers, who would soon be attacked, to "do nothing but observe."

"Because we did not have enough staff to deal with the issue," Capt. Michael Higgins wrote in his incident report.

Higgins left Hotel unit to check on another unit. Only minutes later, a Code Red 00 (double zero) came over the radio — code for an officer being attacked.

Higgins and another officer were stuck in the sally port, or a room between the cell block and the hall, of another cell block for more than a minute, unable to get to the Hotel unit, which was just across the hall, according to a report. It's unclear from reports why the sally port was not immediately unlocked so that Higgins and the other officer could help. A central control room, which was staffed by an officer when the attack happened, controls the sally port locks, according to reports.

By the time officers arrived to Hotel unit, the two officers were injured, one severely.

Detainees — not officers — rescued the two victims from Hotel unit, according to video and reports. After a couple of detainees hit one of the officers — a woman — and shoved her against a wall with a mattress, a detainee shielded her with his body and took her into the Hotel unit's sally port, video showed. She yelled for officers to unlock the exit door so she could escape the sally port, a report said. Her face was bloodied, an officer wrote in her report.

The detainee who shielded the female officer went on to beat the ranking officer into unconsciousness with other detainees, reports said. Blood ran from the CO's head and stained the concrete floor of the Hotel Unit.

The officer lay "on the floor lifeless," Lt. Jonathan Williams wrote after he witnessed the attack on camera monitors. The officer may lose sight in one eye, reports said.

When the beating was over, detainees drug the officer into the sally port, according to Williams' report. It's unclear from the reports if the detainees who drug the officer to safety were involved in the attack. The detainees then barricaded the entrance to Hotel unit.

Medical staff, paramedics and deputies were called in after the attacks and resolved the situation.

The female officer suffered head, hand and shoulder injuries and was "pretty shook up" after the attack, according to a report.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department charged 12 detainees with assault, taking hostages and rioting.

Understaffing issues

From reports, only nine officers were guarding detainment units during the attack. Typically, the jail has more than 600 inmates. One other officer is mentioned in the reports but it appears that his shift ended before the attack started.

One lieutenant noted in a report that when security cameras showed the detainees refusing to go to their cells, he left the monitoring room to round up officers to respond.

Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center has 18 units for housing inmates. Some units can house upwards of 60 inmates while other units house a couple dozen. A juvenile wing is separated from the main jail. The average jail population as of early November was about 683, according to the county.

The jail is severely understaffed, according to sources that work closely with the jail.

The State requested the specific number of vacant positions from the county in September and November but the county never responded.

County Administrator Leonardo Brown said that staffing at the jail "has been an issue for a number of years" before his arrival in 2019, and that he and county council having taken action, such as raising salaries and pay scales, to attract and retain jail officers.

"It's critical we value the work of men and women in the detention center," Brown said. "We need to shine a light on the value that these people bring in keeping up protected."

Per the jail's own policy, every unit should have at least one officer, Giebler said. But one officer is sometimes guarding three units, he said.

In the reports from the Sept. 3 attack, it's noted that one of the units near Hotel unit wasn't being guarded that day.

Giebler said he worked shifts when nine or fewer officers showed up. A normal shift should have about 30 or more, he said. That allows for an officer to be in every unit, in the halls and central control areas.

Giebler estimated that about 150 officers work at the jail.

In 2017, Shane Kitchens, then assistant director of the jail, told Richland County Council that fully staffed the jail would have 266 employees. At the time, 106 positions were vacant.

The understaffing is dangerous because not enough officers are available to respond to emergencies, Giebler said. That's what happened on Sept. 3. With officers having to monitor multiple units — and with no officers roaming halls — detainees, officers or lawyers visiting clients in the sally ports are more at risk in what's already a tense environment.

In October, Giebler's said a detainee charged him. Giebler ran from the detainee, threw a chair to defend himself and called in a Code Red double zero. It took more than five minutes for a supervisor to show up and shock the detainee with a stun gun, Giebler said.

"I could have ended up being jumped," he said. "It could have turned into almost another riot."

(c)2021 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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