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Crime & Courts

Guest Column: South Carolina’s Detention Center Disaster

Ally Benevento: “The body count continues to climb … (but) few are paying attention.”

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People are dying in jails and prisons across the country and few are paying attention. 

People are dying at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center (ASGDC) in Richland County and few are paying attention.

And even fewer seem to care. 

I spend quite a bit of time in detention centers. I interact with people caught up in every stage of the criminal justice process. I see the inhumanity, the cruelty, the outright horror of these facilities. I hold the hands of family members and listen to their desperate, sometimes tearful pleas for help in finding out why their incarcerated loved ones aren’t getting their medication, toilet paper, or running water. I see it every day. It discourages and disgusts me, but it simultaneously lights a flame of determination to effectuate change. Fighting this fight sometimes feels like screaming at the echoing walls of an empty room. For those of us who live and work in this world, it is clear that there is a crisis, and yet things around us appear eerily calm as we watch the general public go about its business as people languish in squalor in the subhuman conditions in our jails. 

Perhaps the most difficult and frustrating part of working towards jail and prison reform is getting people to care. There just isn’t much public “buy in” when it comes to improving conditions for incarcerated people. Many people tend to believe that individuals in jails or prisons are there because they deserve to be there – because they are bad people who made poor choices. The belief that people in jail somehow deserve to be mistreated or don’t deserve to be protected contributes to an environment where detention centers are free to infringe upon the basic rights of detainees without fear of consequence.

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When those of us who work in the criminal justice world use the word “jail,” we are referring to pretrial detention in a local jail or county detention facility (in contrast to “prison,” which typically refers to a correctional facility where people serve their sentences after an adjudication of guilt). This is an important distinction because the majority of individuals held in these facilities have not been adjudicated guilty. They are presumed innocent.

South Carolina law provides that “no person shall be punished for an offense unless duly and legally convicted thereof…” (S.C. Code Ann. 17-25-10) In other words, the purpose of jail isn’t punishment. The job of a county detention center is not to inflict punishment on pretrial detainees but rather to hold them for safekeeping. Safekeeping. Keeping people safe. Not only have the Alvin S Glenn Detention Center and other facilities failed to keep people safe – they have failed to provide even the most basic standard of care. And as a result of those wanton failures, people have lost their lives. 

In Richland County in particular, we have seen an alarming number of preventable detainee deaths and serious injuries in the past year. A young man named Lason Butler died during his thirteen-day stay in the custody of “the Glenn” after being booked for a misdemeanor offense. Through that case and others, we learned that the detention center is housing people in deplorable conditions, including filthy, rodent-infested cells with no running water, littered with urine and feces. Mr. Butler died of dehydration. It is difficult to imagine a slower, more excruciating death. How could a young man be denied care, concern, attention or basic dignity to such an extent that he dies of dehydration while in the custody of Richland County? There is no satisfactory explanation. It is patently inexcusable.

We came to learn that the deplorable conditions that contributed to Mr. Butler’s death were not an anomaly, but rather the standard living conditions at Alvin S. Glenn. In fact, over the last several weeks, numerous videos have surfaced, shot by detainees showing the grotesque and deplorable conditions inside the jail. While these videos were taken nearly a year after Richland County was put on notice of these conditions following Lason Butler’s death in early 2021, the county’s response to the release of those videos showing this inhumane status quo was to criticize the detainees for having illegal cell phones inside the facility, rather than to address the subhuman conditions under which it continues to house people. Just recently, two more detainees at ASGDC passed away while in custody, including a man named James Mitchell. The body count continues to climb.

(Click to View)

Mold on the the wall behind a lavatory in the Alvin S. Glenn detention center in Columbia, S.C. (Provided)

Against the backdrop of these colossal failures have come an increased number of myopic criticisms of our magistrate and circuit court judges when it comes to bonds and criminal sentencing, and legislative efforts and calls for stricter bond policies that would result in a massive increase in the number of incarcerated citizens in this state. 

The pretrial detainees at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center like Mr. Butler, Mr. Mitchell and others who perished in this inhumane facility were presumed innocent. It doesn’t matter whether a person is guilty or innocent when it comes to the question of what basic rights he is entitled to, but when it comes to public buy-in and whether we can get people to care enough to effectuate change, it matters a great deal. Few are concerned with efforts to improve the living conditions of suspected criminals and violent offenders. Politicians with the power to make those improvements may not want to stick their necks out for such a cause, because doing so means they run the risk of being accused of coddling criminals or of allocating tax dollars that would be put to better use elsewhere. 

The preoccupation with the front end of the criminal justice process (interaction with law enforcement) with so little regard for the back end (jail, speedy trials, prison) is both perplexing and disheartening. Of course, we want less crime and safer neighborhoods where we can live and raise our families without fear. This is a goal that we can all agree is worthy. But at what cost does this safety come? And is this “safety” just the trading of one evil for another? Do we purchase short-term community safety with the currency of human life? Who is being kept safe and at what cost? Are our communities safer when we lock up more people? The people we are locking up certainly aren’t safer. 

On a macro level, society must do a serious gut check on how it handles punishment and why. Do we care about rehabilitation and deterrence or do we merely aim to incapacitate criminals and seek retribution for wrongs? On a micro level, the citizens and lawmakers of South Carolina must decide whether we can, in good conscience, continue to fill up our jails knowing the jails are woefully incapable of handling their most basic of responsibility – making sure the people in them stay alive.

(Click to View)

Standing water inside the Alvin S. Glenn detention center in Columbia, S.C. (Provided)

While any civilized society must appropriately impose punishment for bad acts, it must also balance its interest in punishment with its interest in decency and civility in how it treats people – both incarcerated and not incarcerated. How we treat people is a reflection of all of us, and of society as a whole. So, we must ask ourselves, who are we?

And who do we want to be? 

Jails have a responsibility not to kill people. At the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, this rudimentary duty has proven too difficult to fulfill. All of this begs the question of how we can justify policies that will result in an exploding jail population, knowing that such policies endanger human life, but not show the appropriate level of concern or motivation to take action to ensure that the conditions under which we detain people are, at the most basic level, non-lethal and humane. 

Everyone shouts for justice, but there can be no justice for Lason Butler, James Mitchell or the others who tragically lost their lives because nobody cared enough to keep them safe. Justice would have been preventing such tragedy in the first place. While the window has closed for justice for Mr. Butler, Mr. Mitchell and others, the window is wide open for accountability and positive change. 

We should not meet evil with evil. We should not punish cruelty with cruelty. Without meaningful, drastic changes, holding more people in pretrial detention will mean more people dying in pretrial detention. Our jails are not safe. We cannot continue to do what we are doing and expect change. We all want safer communities, but we all deserve to live. We cannot advocate for deadly policy in the name of public safety.  As the number of people in pretrial detention continues to climb, we must ask ourselves, “are we safer?”

Well … that depends on how you define “we.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Ally Benevento (Strom Law)

Alexandra “Ally” Benevento is an attorney with the Columbia, South Carolina-based Strom Law Firm.

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7 comments

Avatar photo
The Colonel Top fan February 13, 2023 at 9:46 am

Get “Ol’Elick” a mop and have him get busy!

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 14, 2023 at 6:27 pm

I could not finish reading your article because I do not believe in painting everyone with the same brush, guilt by association or collective punishment so to speak; but I have come to believe that along with the spoken oath to civility, South Carolina lawyers take an oath to hypocrisy. Bluntly, would you have shed so many (sincere or crocodile) tears over the conditions in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center (“ASGDC”) if your Strom law firm were not representing the family of Lason Butler in its lawsuit against ASGDC? I, a quadrilingual physician, surgeon, and master of public health, was thrown into that ASGDC for 25 days in March-April 2011 SOLELY FOR NOT BEING ABLE TO STAND UP ON A LATER-PROVEN BROKEN KNEE when the supposed “judge” Marion Oneida Hanna entered the courtroom; AND NOT ONE LAWYER OR JUDGE IN THE LENGTH AND BREADTH OF SOUTH CAROLINA STOOD UP FOR ME. Not one: Not Clifton Newman, who had presided over the five-day trial in which I defended myself without a lawyer against fabricated “harassment” charges and, thank God, ultimately won; not Alison Renee Lee, who affirmed my appeal from the horrendous bond conditions imposed on me to get out of that ASGDC pending my appeal of the contempt of court (for not being able to stand on painful knees when Marion Oneida Hanna entered the courtroom, remember). Newman and Lee were then 5th Circuit chief administrative judges and each claimed it is the other who should hear my application for bond. Only 7 years later did Judge Gravely have the courage and decency to rule, in post-conviction relief (which, again, I pursued without a lawyer) that Hanna had no right to impose those bond conditions on me. But I was thrown into ASGDC again in 2022 for having done nothing but ALLEGEDLY sent four e-mails OVER A TWO-YEAR PERIOD to Dan Shearouse inquiring why he had taken my appeals from the original contempt-of-court conviction off C-Track. Again, no lawyer or judge would stand up for me. And speaking of hypocrisy, FITSNEWS never inquired of any court why they conceal my cases from the public record. Maybe you, Ms. Benevento, did not take the same hidden oath to hypocrisy; or maybe you did. Your response, if any, to this lengthy but necessary comment will tell. God bless nonetheless.

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 16, 2023 at 8:00 am

Thank you Maitresse Benevento for your genuine concern. Perhaps people would care more if you pointed out that, the more crowded the jails and prisons are, THE HIGHER THE CHANCES OF ESCAPE BY THE MOST DANGEROUS DETAINEES/CONVICTS. Those are the ones with nothing more to lose. And most escape attempts, successful or not, involved inside jobs; which proves that Society can produce only a rare number of people willing to work as jail/prison guards who are both strong AND incorruptible. The other thing you may want to point out is that the problem leading to overincarceration is over-criminalization and over-penalization. I give the contrast between Elizabeth Smart and Samantha Josephson, assuming there was a rape intent in the latter case. I ask every parent of a daughter: if she were, God forbid, kidnapped with the intent of rape, would you rather have her returned to you, perhaps impregnated by her kidnapper, BUT ALIVE or would you prefer that her kidnapper kill her to avoid detection? The way to ensure that is to give EVERY CRIME less than homicide much lower penalty than homicidal crimes to reduce the incentive of the criminal to kill the viction to avoid detection. It may be easier to convince people with actual studies and statistics that over-criminalization, over-penalization, and over-incarceration at the end make society LESS, not more “SAFE.” God speed and God bless.

Reply
Deone Yurchenko Top fan March 5, 2023 at 10:36 am

It’s Jail…it is not a country club for the worst of us. Society gave them all the opportunity anyone has to make a good life for themselves and created for themselves good living conditions..the fact they chose to become the worst of the worst of us is in fact their own choice. Should they be treated like rats? no and they are not. Is there over crowding in our jails, you bet, but the money that is needed for repairs is used to feed the worst of the worst of us. Taxpayers are tapped out. There is not responsibility to tax payers to continue to doll out dollars hand over fist to provide immaculate conditions for the worst of the worst of us. They are not forced to make a contribution to society such as road crews or even their own environment…look at the source, and fix it there. Do not complain to society for the conditions they created for our society if they were not there. There hast to be accountability and responsibility and it is not on the tax payers to make that a cushy road for them.

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Deone Yurchenko Top fan March 5, 2023 at 10:37 am

Stop doing crime and you do not do the time…we need to hold prisoners more accountable for their action, on a sure basis they will not get out…period

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Ted Lewis Top fan March 7, 2023 at 11:02 am

The prison I was helping restore in Iraq in 2004 was in better shape than this place. Detainees have the expectation that they will make to trail and not die!
Deplorable conditions

Reply
Lena November 14, 2023 at 3:47 pm

Thank you, ally, for what you are doing by looking into the conditions there. It is definitely unacceptable and inhumane.

Reply

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