A new lawsuit claims prison psychiatrists did a poor job treating inmates, while officers created an environment that enabled fatal attacks to occur.
The lawsuit was filed this week against the Department of Corrections (SCDC) over the deaths of four inmates who were strangled by others at the Intermediate Care Services wing inside a Columbia prison last April. The ICS unit at Kirkland Correctional Institute handles inmates with mental health issues who are not able to receive proper treatment at other prisons around the state, but whose issues do not rise to the level of hospital care.
Corrections officials said two inmates Denver Simmons and Jacob Phillip confessed to luring the four victims into their cells and strangling them over the course of several hours. Simmons and Phillip told investigators they wanted the death penalty and hoped the killings would lead to their eventual execution.
Attorney Carter Elliott filed the wrongful death lawsuit this week on behalf of the estates of two victims — Jason Kelley and Jimmy Ham. “They were fairly brutal in the way they killed all four of these guys,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And it took the span of a couple hours for this to happen, with nobody monitoring that unit enough to even see that these things were going on. Which I think is pretty ridiculous.”
Elliott claimed the prison’s staff did not even realized what had happened until Simmons approached them to ask that they look in his cell. Attorneys plan to file additional lawsuits on behalf of two other inmates also killed, John King and William Scruggs.
An SCDC spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits.
The lawsuit claims many of the clinical counselors did not meet the agency’s minimum requirements for a bachelor’s degree in social or behavioral sciences or a state counseling license. The facility often had lax standards as a result, the complaint continues, with those counselors often evaluating a patient only once every three months and often only asking three-minute questionnaires off a checklist. When some counselors complained about the situation and tried to follow treatment plans recommended by a psychiatrist, they were reprimanded by the facility’s supervisor Antionette Bradley, the lawsuit claims.
It also claims only a single corrections officer monitored the entire ICS unit and its 139 inmates, even though the agency’s own regulations require at least two. Staffing shortages and strains meant that the mentally-ill inmates inside were often unsupervised, despite their condition. The lawsuit further claims SCDC did not follow its own regulations in housing non-violent offenders and violent ones (both Phillip and Simmons were in prison for murder convictions) together in the same unit.
“Obviously, this is the worst of the worst thing that could happen,” Elliott said. “I think people will begin to understand why some of these things are happening. Hopefully (the lawsuit) will shine some light on it. And hopefully, they’ll make some changes.”
South Carolina has had a tumultuous history for mental health care in its prison facilities. The Department of Corrections signed an agreement in 2016 with an organization whose lawsuit led a state judge to declare care for 3,500 severely mentally-ill inmates was “unconstitutional.” The agreement gave SCDC four years to implement the tighter staffing, treatment and housing standards.