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Richland jail is 'dangerous, inhumane' in treatment of people with mental illness: lawsuit

State - 4/30/2022

Locked up in 'moldy, filthy, infested' cells, bitten by rats, and strapped to chairs so long they are 'forced to urinate on themselves.'

These are some of the "dangerous, inhumane" ways people with mental illness detained at the Richland County jail have been treated, according to an extensive lawsuit filed Thursday morning.

Richland County is being sued in federal court by Disability Rights South Carolina, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. Attorneys Stuart Andrews, Nekki Shutt and Sarah J. M. Cox of the Burnette Shutt & McDaniel law firm are representing Disability Rights SC.

Detainees with mental illnesses at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center suffer cruel punishment and restraints; don't get needed medication; aren't properly supervised, even when on suicide watch, and are subjected to a heightened risk of harm because of "dangerously low staff levels," the suit says.

The lawsuit asks that the federal court take over the jail and oversee that Richland County implement fixes.

"The county needs to clean up its mess," Andrews said at a news conference Thursday morning. "Many of the practices need to be stopped tomorrow."


The lawsuit calls Richland County's treatment of people with mental illnesses in its jail "medieval."

"Due to a broken system, we are using our (jails, prisons and detention centers) as a place for people with mental illnesses when many of them should be receiving those services either in the community or at an appropriate treatment facility," said Beth Franco, executive director of Disability Rights South Carolina.

The lawsuit lays out its case across 30 pages, citing five main contentions and providing examples of the treatment of three people with mental illnesses locked up in the jail.

The people are only identified by initials in the suit.

One detainee with a "long history of severe mental illness" and suicide attempts has been hospitalized more than 10 times since October when he was jailed in the detention center, according to the suit. Lack of supervision by the jail's staff has exacerbated the man's suicide attempts.

The man is "frequently confined to the restraint chair for days on end, not allowed to stretch his limbs or use the restroom" and left alone, the suit says. He has been left unsupervised with means to harm himself.

On one occasion, he was left alone "restrained" in the specialized chair and was able to grab a bottle of bleach and drink it, the suit claims. He was treated at a hospital and brought back to the detention center. Jail staff punished him for drinking bleach by putting him in the same restraint chair, according to the suit.

When interviewed about his treatment, the man was still wearing a uniform "stained with bleach (and) vomit," the suit says.

On another occasion, the man told jail staff the ways he could harm himself in a cell and asked that they protect him from doing so, the suit alleges. He was placed in the cell anyway and "harmed himself in the precise manner he predicted would occur."

The lawsuit frequently references the Special Housing Unit, or SHU, which is a cell block inside the jail for violent detainees, those with mental illnesses or those on suicide watch.

While on suicide watch in the SHU, people with mentally illnesses "are often stripped out in non-therapeutic, filthy cells where they are behind metal doors with small windows and cannot be seen by security staff," the suit says.

During Thursday morning's news conference, Cox said the SHU is the "dungeon" of the detention center.

A suicidal man with mental illness was placed in a shower stall in the SHU for two days straight and was unable to sit or lie down, the suit claims. When put in a SHU cell, he was stripped and dressed in an "anti-suicide smock" and given an "anti-suicide blanket." He was locked inside for two straight weeks while "occasionally being observed by guards," the suit says.

The man's cell would flood with an inch of "contaminated water" from an adjacent cell's toilet, the suit alleges. The man could only speak with visitors or jail staff by standing on his toilet and speaking through a "small, barred window" on the cell's door.

His "condition drastically worsened and continues to worsen due to the conditions he has been suffering under in SHU."

The lawsuit refers to one detainee as "L.B.," a probable reference to Lason Butler. In February, the 27-year-old Butler died of dehydration while under suicide watch in the SHU, according to an autopsy report and video reviewed by The State. His body had rat bites on it, and Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford ruled his death a homicide because of "lack of action" by the jail's staff.

The lawsuit says "L.B." was noted as being "floridly psychotic" by the jail's medical staff and locked up in the SHU. Jail staff noted he was not eating or drinking and moved him to a cell for suicide watch, "where he was left for an indeterminate amount of time, still not eating, drinking or responding to stimuli," according to the suit.

"Eventually (a detention center employee) noticed that L.B. had died," the suit says.

The suit's five main allegations of the county's treatment of detainees with mental illnesses are:

The jail has inadequate mental health programs and services, including ineffective screenings of incoming detainees; fails to supervise and fails to provide medication.

Shower stalls and restraint chairs are used to punish.

The jail uses prolonged solitary confinement.

Unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the SHU expose people to risk of infection and disease.

The jail has dangerously low staffing, which is failing to protect people from harm.

The State has reported extensively on the escalation of violence at the jail that has been blamed on a lack of jail staff. The State's coverage has included accounts from a former detention officer about dangerously low staff levels, a former detainee who witnessed violence and little to no staff response and a mother whose son was beaten by a gang in the jail.

"You would have to be under a rock the last couple of months to not understand the problems at the jail," Andrews, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, said at a news conference Thursday morning. He called the SHU a "dungeon."

Along with treatment of people with mental illnesses, parts of the facility are in shambles, the suit claims.

The county fails to maintain Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, "particularly the SHU, in a sanitary and safe condition," the suit says. "The toilets frequently flood and break, spilling raw sewage into detainees' living quarters. The facility's air-handling system is full of visible mold and in some cases, fecal matter."

All of this amounts to violations of people's rights to protection from harm, cruel and unusual punishment and equal protection under the law, the suit says.

The jail is also violating the Americans with Disability Act, or ADA, the suit claims.


The suit asks that the court immediately require Richland County to cease the practices described in the lawsuit that harm people with mental illness.

The suit also wants the court to appoint a monitor to ensure that fixes are put into place, and the suit asks the court to stop the detention center from jailing people other than those arrested by Richland County Sheriff's Department.

The U.S. Department of Justice, City of Columbia, City of Forest Acres, and University of South Carolina Police Department jail people at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, "though it cannot adequately supervise the detainees presented for booking by the Richland County Sheriff's Office," the suit says.

The suit doesn't ask for any specific amount of money to be paid out, but does ask that Richland County be required to repay the plaintiff's fees associated with filing the lawsuit.

Thursday Andrews said the suit wasn't about money and that no money other than lawsuit fees is being asked for.

A similar, prior lawsuit

Andrews was one of the lawyers who represented people with mental disabilities in a lawsuit against the state's Department of Corrections that forced changes to how the agency treated people with mental illness.

That lawsuit was filed in 2005 and settled in 2015. In that time, a judge found that the corrections department provided substandard treatment to inmates with mental illnesses, and that inmates died for want of basic mental health care, The State reported.

The settlement required the corrections department to spend $1.7 million for facility upgrades plus another $7 million to add some 70 mental health staffers. The settlement included plans for independent oversight and increased training for corrections staff who worked with people with mental illnesses.

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