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.
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)
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)
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.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Alexandra “Ally” Benevento is an attorney with the Columbia, South Carolina-based Strom Law Firm.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.