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Detainee's death adds to scrutiny of South Carolina jail

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott shares updates on a local jail detainee's death in Columbia, S.C., on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Five murder charges stemming from a detainee’s recent death have added to mounting concerns over the conditions at a jail in South Carolina’s capital city. (AP Photo/James Pollard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A detainee's body was found dead about 18 hours after five men beat him in a South Carolina jail where the sheriff said many cell doors don't lock — the latest troubling incident in a detention center described as a “death trap” by the lawyer for a different man found dead last year with fresh rat bites on his body.

Five other detainees have been charged with the murder after officers found Antonius Randolph dead in a pool of blood on the afternoon of Jan. 27. The 29-year-old accused serial rapist's death at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center comes after several federal lawsuits, a troubling audit and a hiring scandal that have left the interim director promising what the Post and Courier reported as “a series of sweeping changes.”

The incident — six days after Randolph's arrest on charges of sexual assault and robbery — has added to mounting concerns over the conditions at the jail in South Carolina’s capital city.

The most recent South Carolina Department of Corrections audit found over a dozen violations of state standards at the embattled facility. According to the annual report for 2022, the jail is beset by overcrowded housing units, inadequate staffing and lagging pest control. The audit revealed that some detainees were kept in fire-damaged cells, while another handicapped person was housed in a cell that was noncompliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Some cells reportedly had malfunctioning locks in need of repair.

Indeed, an investigation into Randolph’s death also found that many cell doors do not lock, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a Friday news conference. Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford told reporters that Randolph would not have recovered had he been found earlier. Neither official would share details surrounding what Lott called a “very brutal" attack by five other detainees.

"It’s an outrageous example of the failure of the jail administrators to protect individuals within their care,” Burnette Shutt & McDaniel attorney Stuart Andrews said of the latest death. Andrews represents Disability Rights South Carolina in a federal lawsuit filed in April that alleged detainees with disabilities were held in unsafe and unsanitary cells for up to 24 hours a day.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department said the investigation is ongoing and more charges are expected. In a statement Friday, Richland County committed to prosecuting all involved parties “to the fullest extent of law.” The press release said unlocked cell doors are not a practice of the detention center but the result of detainees' criminal activity. The county said it is committed to improving the facility.

“A loss of life in this manner is not only disheartening but alarming, and we continue to express our deepest sympathy to the family of Mr. Randolph,” the statement said.

Three people have died in the correctional facility’s custody over the past 12 months.

A separate federal lawsuit filed this past summer alleged deliberate indifference in the death of Lason Butler. Officials found the 27-year-old man dead on Feb. 12, 2022, with fresh rat bites and no running water, according to the lawsuit. The Richland County coroner ruled the death a homicide and noted a “lack of action” by the jail staff.

Butler lost more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms) over a two-week period spent in a room where he frequently lay naked and was placed on suicide watch despite officials’ knowledge that the unit was unfit to serve people with mental health issues, according to the lawsuit. Police had arrested Butler last January for reckless driving, failure to stop for blue lights and a suspended license.

In the wake of Randolph's death, Butler's lawyers called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. In a Friday press release, attorney Bakari Sellers called the facility a “death trap.”

Attorneys with the Columbia-based Strom Law Firm also referenced a series of January TikTok videos reported by the Post and Courier that claim to show unsanitary conditions like clogged toilets and undercooked food inside the center.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control gave the jail a “C” food grade in January after an inspection revealed meat cooked to poor temperatures, food stored on the floor and dishes kept outside. A Feb. 1 follow-up inspection resulted in an “A” rating.

The jail has been without a permanent leader since its director, Tyrell Cato, was fired in September after The State reported he had lost his previous job over accusations of sexual harassment.

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James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.