South Carolina?s Commissioner of Corrections, Jon Ozmint, has embraced hardcore disciplinary methods to deal with prisoners who violate prison rules. Such punishments include depriving prisoners of food and requiring them to wear pink outfits.
The food deprivation has taken on a new twist. Rather than withholding food as a form of discipline, which is legally questionable, Ozmint has construed such sanctions to be a voluntary act by the prisoner. ?Our rule is simple ? any inmate is allowed to decline the opportunity (to eat, exercise, shower or have visits) by failure to comply with our reasonable requirements,? Ozmint wrote in a November 2006 e-mail to wardens and prison officials. ?Eating is a voluntary activity and any inmate may refuse to eat.?
Tyger River Correctional Institution prisoner Darrell Hunter found himself on the list for ?voluntary refusing? to eat due to his refusal to shave with a razor. Medical records indicated that Hunter, 26, was ?being denied any meals? for not shaving.
Hunter?s medical report stated, ?Note in log book on 11-2-06 from Capt. Alexander that inmates not in compliance with the grooming policy were not to be given a tray.? Hunter denied he was on a hunger strike; after five days without food he told medical personnel he was ?cramping and feeling lightheaded.? When Hunter finally shaved on November 8, 2006, his medical report said he started ?receiving (food) trays and eating.?
Ozmint, however, disputed the prison records, saying Hunter was given a tray each day. Perhaps Ozmint meant to say that a tray was shown to Hunter each day as the proverbial carrot to compel his compliance. To deflect from Hunter?s medical records, Ozmint called him ?a liar,? ?a pervert,? and ?one of the worst (prisoners) in the system.? One thing is certain, either Ozmint or the prison employee who prepared Hunter?s medical records is a liar.
Food deprivation is illegal according to Margaret Winter, associate director of the National Prison Project of the ACLU. ?I?ve litigated a lot of terrible prison conditions, but none where food was denied as punishment,? she said.
Another of Ozmint?s controversial policies is a requirement that prisoners convicted of sex-related disciplinary charges wear pink jumpsuits. Prisoners who must wear pink can return to their regular tan jumpsuits after three months; during that time they are housed together in areas where women are not allowed to work. Prison officials claim the policy inhibits the prisoners? supposed motivation for their acts. ?They are trying to humiliate or offend females,? said prison spokesman Josh Gelinas.
The pink jumpsuit policy spawned a June 2006 lawsuit by prisoner Sherone Nealous, who claimed the policy ?is placing inmates? lives and physical well-being in danger.? Nealous has never worn the pink clothing, but claimed ?the color ?pink? in an all-male environment no doubt cause[s] division and verbal and physical attacks on a person?s manhood. This policy also gives correctional officers an easy avenue to label an inmate.?
Prison officials moved to dismiss the suit in August 2007. ?We don?t believe the United States Constitution protects an inmate?s right to publicly gratify himself,? Ozmint said. ?We?re hopeful federal courts won?t look into our constitution and create such a right.?
In support of their motion to dismiss, South Carolina officials pointed to a $1 million judgment awarded to Florida prison nurses who alleged that that state?s corrections department had failed to stop sexual harassment from prisoners who exposed themselves and made sexually demeaning comments. [See: PLN, Aug. 2007, p.26].
The lawsuit filed by Nealous, who is represented by the law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough, withstood a motion for summary judgment on Nov. 26, 2007 and is scheduled for trial in January 2008. See: Nealous v. Ozmint, USDC SC, Case No. 9:06-cv-1771-DCN.
Critics acknowledge a need for prison discipline but advocate different methods. ?Of course you should protect staff from sexual harassment, but there are other ways to do it besides this degradation and putting people at risk,? stated Jamie Fellner, former director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. ?Prisons are funny places, and you start pointing fingers at people for specific things and you can set off all kinds of things.?
?To me, [pink outfits] goes back to concentration camps,? said former South Carolina corrections director Bill Lecke, a 30-year veteran and head of the state?s prison system for 19 years. ?We?re a civilized society.?
Ozmint contends that a disciplinary policy that withholds privileges from prisoners ?is not a disciplinary action nor is it punishment.? Rather, he said, ?It is simply the practical, administrative execution of our duty to provide safe, secure prisons.?
Some people, however, feel that Ozmint is selective in dishing out discipline and extends privileges to some prisoners who do not deserve them. The mother of a 1981 murder victim wrote in a media release that she was ?outraged not only at this exercise of an extraordinary privilege, but also at the softening of justice for a woman who committed a heinous crime.?
That statement came from Linda Taylor, whose son, Walter Slayton, was killed by Dianne Graddick, a prisoner who is employed as Ozmint?s housekeeper. Graddick, 47, was sentenced to life in prison for luring Slayton to a landfill and setting him afire after she and her four accomplices doused him with gasoline. Slayton lived for several hours before being killed by a blow to the head.
Ozmint changed Graddick?s security rating when he selected her to be his housekeeper; he said she was a model prisoner and ?a woman of Christian character.? She was placed in a minimum security prison without fences to make it easier to transport her to Ozmint?s home, which is located on prison property. Ozmint stated he had the authority to override any corrections department policy.
Ozmint has also been under fire from state lawmakers following a committee report released in August 2007 that alleged misconduct in the state prison system. The report, which was based on unsworn statements and interviews, included claims of prisoner abuse, security lapses, misuse of prison labor, multiple escapes, a hostile work environment and intimidating use of lie detectors, an attempted cover-up of the rape of a female employee, and missing guns and keys. Ozmint termed the allegations a ?witch hunt,? and said they were ?intentionally misleading and ... false in all respects.?
In summary, South Carolina prisoners can expect harsh or humiliating penalties from prison officials when they violate prison rules. The public largely cheers such disciplinary measures, and reserves its derision for a female prisoner who, despite a murder conviction, has followed prison rules for 26 years and displayed model behavior. Meanwhile, the state?s corrections commissioner makes up his own rules and refuses to believe allegations that prison employees have engaged in misconduct.
Sources: The Columbia Herald, Aiken Standard, Associated Press, www.thestate.com
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Related legal case
Nealous v. Ozmint
|Cite||USDC SC, Case No. 9:06-cv-1771-DCN|