A new report published in January 2023 by Madalyn Wasilczur, a professor leading the University of South Carolina (USC) School of Law Incarceration Transparency project, reveals a troubling number of deaths in jails and prisons in the Palmetto State between 2015 and 2021. During that time, 777 deaths occurred in the state’s 52 lockups.
South Carolina incarcerates almost 11,500 people in county jails and almost 16,000 more in state prisons, ranking 26th in the nation in per capita incarceration rate, at 304 per 100,000. Racial disparities are also apparent, with Blacks accounting for 61% of those serving time in state prisons, yet just 27% of the total state population. Black children represented 57% of those confined in juvenile detention, too.
The state also has some of the highest mortality rates behind bars. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics calculated the death rate in South Carolina jails at 196 per 100,000 in 2019, exceeding the national average of 167 per 100,000. The rate in state prisons was an astonishing 386 per 100,000, tops in the nation, which averaged 330 per 100,000.
Wasilczur’s report analyzed data collected from the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) and Department of Public Safety, along with other documents obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests. The analysis categorized deaths by race, gender, age, trial status, and cause of death.
Of the 777 confirmed deaths, 15 were of unknown race, and the other 762 were split evenly between Black and white prisoners, meaning each group represented 49% of the total. The vast majority of deaths were among men, accounting for 729, or 94% of the total.
The average age of a South Carolina prisoner is 40.8 years for men and 39.5 years for women. As in lockups across the country, the largest share of deaths – about 60% – were among people 50 or older. Prisoners 51-55 accounted for approximately 13% of all deaths; 56–60-year-olds accounted for 14%; and those 61-65 made up roughly 13.5%.
Wasilczur’s report also revealed age disparities depending on where prisoners died. The highest percentage of DOC deaths happened in ages 61-65, while in jails and other detention facilities it was ages 36-40. DOC also accounted for the lion’s share of incarcerated deaths, 83%. But of those left to die in jails, an alarming 109 were legally innocent and awaiting trial.
The main causes of death in South Carolina’s jails and prisons fell into three categories: medical, suicide, and drug overdoses. Some 54% of Black prisoners died of medical causes, a rate almost 10% higher than whites’ 45%. Incarcerated Blacks were also more likely to die due to violence, representing 66% of all violent deaths. However, white prisoners had higher suicide and drug overdose death rates, accounting for 59% and 66% of those totals, respectively. About 66% of both men and women died of medical causes
Not surprisingly, older prisoners accounted for most of the deaths attributed to medical issues, which comprised 525 – over 67% – of all fatalities. However, younger prisoners aged 21-25, accounted for the highest percentage of suicides, 42%. Also, the 103 deaths recorded in 2020 reflected the toll COVID-19 took. See: South Carolina Deaths Behind Bars 2015-2021, Incarceration Transparency (USC Sch. of Law, 2023).
After the report’s publication, Wasilczur invited officials from DOC and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to discuss her findings. They agreed that factors contributing to the high mortality rates include improper staff training, as well as a lack of medical and psychiatric support for elderly prisoners and those with chronic illnesses or mental disorders.
Also blamed was understaffing, though DOC reduced its guard vacancy rate from 60% to 40% in the year ending April 2023, filling more than 256 jobs.
Additional source: The State
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