3,175 cases probed; action taken in 355 where inmates involved
COLUMBIA — State prison officials have conducted 3,175 investigations of employee conduct since 2005 and handed out 355 disciplinary actions that may involve inmates.
Those numbers, released to The Greenville News as a result of state Freedom of Information Act requests, are raising the eyebrows of some lawmakers, who wonder why more investigations didn’t result in disciplinary actions.
Clark Newsom, spokesman for the prison system, told The News that the 355 represents the number of disciplinary actions for which computer codes show possible involvement of an inmate.
Such cases might include allegations that an officer assaulted an inmate or had sex with an inmate. But he said the only way to know for sure is by pulling each individual file. He said the total number of disciplinary actions, whether involving an inmate or not, is larger than 355.
Senate Corrections and Penology Committee Chairman Mike Fair of Greenville said he is “disappointed” the prison system didn’t take more disciplinary actions in cases involving inmates, especially in light of Circuit Judge Mike Baxley’s 45-page ruling last month that found the prison system had violated the rights of mentally ill inmates, some of whom died.
“That information does give credence to the findings of Judge Baxley,” Fair said.
Baxley’s ruling came as the result of a 2005 lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates by the advocacy group Protection and Advocacy for People With Disabilities.
His order included individual horror stories, including cases in which inmates were placed in solitary for years, strapped into restraining chairs in painful positions and left naked and in filth in cold, empty cells.
Baxley reported some inmates had died “for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.”
About 12 to 17 percent of the state’s prisoners are thought to suffer some form of mental illness, officials have said.
The prison system has said it plans to appeal and has asked the judge to amend his order to find in favor of the agency.
Prison officials also have released a list of improvements and actions they have taken in recent years to address the handling of mentally ill inmates. Both sides in the case are now engaged in mediation over proposed solutions.
The data released by the prison system doesn’t offer details of the investigations or of the disciplinary actions.
Newsom told The News that officials don’t know how many, if any, of either the investigations or disciplinary actions involve any mentally ill inmates.
He said it is possible for employees to be disciplined without any internal investigation.
Newsom didn’t know how many of the investigations, if any, resulted in any criminal charges.
Some employees have been charged with crimes over the years. Charges range from food stamp fraud to sexual misconduct to possession with intent to distribute drugs to simple assault and battery to attempting to furnish contraband, according to court and State Law Enforcement Division records.
• Three workers at the Kershaw Correctional Institution were charged in June of 2013 with sexual misconduct with an inmate. Two of the workers, in their 50s, were charged with first-degree sexual misconduct with an inmate, while a third worker was charged with second-degree sexual misconduct. All three were fired.
• A 24-year-old correctional officer at Tyger River Correctional Institution was charged with two counts of misconduct in office and one count of aiding an escape for allegedly making impressions of a master key and providing it to an inmate.
• An officer at Kirkland Correctional Institution was charged in July of 2011 with 16 counts of fraudulent acquisition of food stamps, 15 counts of financial card fraud and forgery and two counts of misconduct in office.
• A former correctional officer at Tyger was charged in April 2008 with sexual misconduct with an inmate.
The mental health lawsuit and trial also gave glimpses into the prison system’s disciplinary actions. According to exhibits filed by plaintiffs in the case:
• Perry Correctional Institution mental health counselor was fired in June 2010 for sexual misconduct with an inmate.
• Another counselor at Perry resigned in August 2010 while under investigation for inappropriate employee-inmate relations.
• Another Perry counselor retired in 2010 four months after being reprimanded for inaccurate documentation of medication compliance for an inmate who later committed suicide.
• A counselor at another prison received a written warning in 2007 for negligence for failing to respond to a medical emergency, conduct a 15-minute suicide watch and provide counseling.
• A counselor at another prison was terminated for falsifying suicide precaution cell check logs. The counselor had previously been disciplined for using a state phone for long-distance personal calls and for insubordination and unprofessional conduct.
Advocates for mentally ill inmates and their families have expressed concerns that staffers who have committed misconduct have avoided criminal charges and/or disciplinary actions.
Attorneys for the family of a mentally ill inmate who died in 2008 after spending 11 days naked and arriving at a hospital with hypothermia, say no one has been charged in connection with the death and they aren’t aware of any staffer who was disciplined, though Baxley wrote that the inmate had been “physically abused” by a correctional officer during his cell transfer and a prison investigator later “found evidence of an attempted cover-up by correctional officers” who cleaned the cell before investigators could photograph it.
“No one was disciplined, no one was terminated,” said James Moore, one of the lawyers representing the family of Jerome Laudman in suits against the prison system and individual staff. “Many of the officers involved in the Laudman case are still there at SCDC.”
Moore said from his experience in handling cases involving the prison system, disciplinary actions vary from institution to institution.
“I’ve seen corrective action and disciplinary reports based on an officer giving an inmate a bag of potato chips,” he said. “Yet here in the Laudman case, when their own investigative report reveals misconduct, there was no disciplinary action taken.”
In that case, the prison system’s inspector general’s office conducted an investigation, as well as the State Law Enforcement Division, which later referred the case to the U.S. attorney’s office in Columbia for possible civil rights violations.
Newsome said any person or agency can request an investigation, from an inmate’s family to a correctional officer. The department’s division of investigations then conducts a preliminary inquiry to determine if an investigation is warranted. If so, he said, an investigator is assigned and the probe begins.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat and the newest member of the Senate Corrections Committee, said he thinks lawmakers should do a better job of oversight.
“The 3,000 number concerns me,” he said of the internal investigations.
“We on this committee have to be more careful about monitoring the South Carolina Department of Corrections. We’ve got a new prison chief. We’ll be asking him tough questions. When brought to our attention proactively we should start looking into these specific examples of abuse that are documented in the judge’s order.”
Fair said he agrees that the agency should have more oversight. He said part of the fallout from the judge’s order is that everyone — from correctional officers to lawmakers — is blamed for what happened.
“As a member of the General Assembly, I have to accept my part of the blame, particularly for my role of oversight of not knowing that information,” he said.