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Deplorable Conditions at South Carolina Prisons Prompt Call for UN Intervention

Despite settling a landmark prisoner civil rights case in 2016, and after a bloody 2018 riot led to a nationwide prisoner work strike that same year, conditions in facilities run by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC) remain so bad that prisoner advocates in late-2019 appealed directly to the United Nations (U.N.) to intervene.

The appeal was delivered October 23, 2019, to U.N. offices in New York, London, Washington, D.C., and Kingston, Jamaica, by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). Citing alleged violations by SCDOC of the U.N.’s Mandela Rules – a list of requirements for the ethical treatment of prisoners named after former South African President Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 imprisoned for fighting the country’s Apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination – the appeal demanded opening sealed cell windows, restoring outdoor recreation and improving nutrition for prisoners, as well as a Special Rapporteur to “investigate the torturous, cruel, and inhumane punishment of prisoners in South Carolina.”

Prisoner rights advocate and writer Jared Ware said the appeal was delivered because IWOC and allied activists groups believed official inaction left “no other path to redress” conditions in SCDOC prisons, which he said “have been specifically repressive” for nearly two years after a bloody riot erupted in April 2018 at Lee Correctional Institution (LCI) near Bishopville, leaving seven prisoners dead and 40 more wounded.

“Sometimes (SCDOC) would leave one ‘privilege’ or ‘character’ dorm off lockdown so that they could deny the whole facility was on lockdown,” Ware said. “But for the majority of prisoners in each facility, they were locked down.”

The LCI riot has spawned three dozen lawsuits against SCDOC. But as of May 2020, no criminal charges had been filed. SCDOC’s investigation, plagued by staff shortages that have been made worse by the global Covid-19 pandemic, has so far found no one liable for the country’s deadliest prison riot since the 1970s

“This entire event was captured on video inside of a maximum-security prison — yet no indictments,” complained attorney James B. Moore III, who represents the family of Eddie Haskins in one of the wrongful death suits.

The 32-year-old from Berkeley County had been at LCI just two weeks when he was killed in the melee. Now, Moore said, the Haskins family “is losing confidence that justice will prevail through the criminal system.”

Meanwhile SCDOC prisoners say they have “no access to sunlight or the outdoors, and at best weekly access to showers,” Ware reported.

Outdoor recreation has been severely restricted by SCDOC. At LCI and other Level 3 prisons – the highest security level in South Carolina – steel plates welded over cell windows in 2017 to reduce the size of the window opening continue also to restrict sunlight and ventilation. SCDOC spokesperson Chrysti Shain said in November 2019 that steel plates would be removed from cell windows, but the project remained incomplete as of April 2020.

Prisoners also complain of rancid and rotten food, contaminated water, mold and denial of showers, activists say, adding that some guards withhold from prisoners even the contaminated drinking water.

Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate is up. The rate in 2018 was almost double that of 2017. The average suicide rate now in Level 3 state prisons is 34 percent above what it was 10 years ago. [See: PLN, May 2018, p. 12; July 2018, p. 14]

In response to the LCI riot – and SCDOC’s failure to address either its causes or its consequences – IOWC backed a prison worker strike in September 2018 that was spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of prisoners claiming that “prisons in America are a warzone.”

“Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement,” the group said. “For some of us it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”

The strike, which lasted from August 21 through September 9, 2018, included sit-downs, hunger strikes, commissary and telephone boycotts as well as work stoppages and slowdowns.

SCDOC remains under the gun to abide by a 2016 federal court order – issued in a case already then eight years old – which found the state’s treatment of its mentally ill prisoners “inherently flawed and systematically deficient in all major areas.” A large monetary settlement was agreed to by the parties, along with policy changes limiting solitary confinement and requiring appropriate treatment for mentally ill prisoners. The court gave SCDOC a four-year period to comply with the settlement, which expires in June 2020.