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Richland County jail staff inaction led to inmate's death, coroner says

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Lakeshia Butler talks to reporters about her son, Lason Butler, a 27-year-old Orangeburg man found dead in his cell at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center on Feb. 12 while attorney Bakari Sellers (back) and Butler's father, John Matthews, look on. Stephen Fastenau/Staff

COLUMBIA — The death of an Orangeburg man in the Richland County jail in February has been ruled a homicide, authorities said April 6.

Lason Butler, 27, was found dead in a cell at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in February. Butler's cause of death was determined to have been from complications of acute dehydration and determined to be a homicide, County Coroner Naida Rutherford said.

The decision is based on the belief that inaction on the behalf of the jail staff led to Butler's death and doesn't necessarily require intent, Rutherford noted. Butler should have received "hydration therapy" before his death Feb. 11, she said.

"The staff knew that he was not receiving adequate intake of food and fluids, and they did not take proper action," Rutherford told The Post and Courier. "So on my side — I'm not an attorney, nor do I purport to be one, but I believe that there were several things missed in the care of Mr. Butler that could have prevented his death."

The sheriff's department will continue to investigate the death, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. Prosecutors will ultimately determine whether any criminal charge are filed.

“If someone needs to be held accountable for his death, we’ll definitely bring charges after we consult with the solicitor's office,” Lott told The Post and Courier. 

The State newspaper first reported Butler's cause of death and the homicide determination.

Lott's agency doesn't oversee the jail, which is under the direction Richland County officials. The jail's director reports to John Thompson, the assistant county administrator, with oversight from County Council.

County Administrator Leonardo Brown declined to comment April 6, citing potential ongoing legal action. Council Chairman Overture Walker declined to comment on Butler’s case specifically, referring a reporter to an earlier statement in which he said the county was committed to actions to ensure the health and safety of people at the jail.

Butler's family and attorneys said in February he died alone amid deplorable conditions at the jail and placed the blame on a lack of oversight caused by chronic staff shortages. Bakari Sellers, an attorney for Butler's family, said in February he planned to file state and federal lawsuits over the death.

Sellers said April 6 he believes criminal charges are warranted and that he trusts 5th Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson to come to an appropriate decision. Butler did not receive necessary medical care and at one point was dropped while being transported from one cell to another, the attorney said.

"If a pit bull was treated the way Lason Butler was treated, the owners of that pit bull would have been charged," Sellers said.

The family is conducting an independent autopsy that has not been completed, Sellers said.

Butler was being held on charges of failure to stop for blue lights, reckless driving and driving under suspension, according to court records. His most serious charge carried $1,500 bond.

Last summer, 141 of the jail’s 264 budgeted positions were unfilled, then-jail director Ronaldo Myers told county officials. County Council approved raising pay for entry level officers up to $36,500 per year, from $32,210, and to freeze 50 positions that had gone unfilled for years.

County policymakers also approved spending millions in COVID-19 relief money on security upgrades for the jail, including body scanners, a secure parking area for employees and new security cameras throughout the facility.

In September, inmates escaped their cells and rioted at the jail, injuring two officers, authorities said. Twelve people face charges in the alleged assault.

Myers resigned that month in what county officials said had been a planned retirement. Myers had been on unapproved leave the day of the riot, on a day his second in command, Shane Kitchen, was already scheduled to be off, county records obtained by The Post and Courier showed.

Kitchen, who had served as interim director since Myers' departure, left in April for a position at York County Detention Center, according to his profile on professional networking website LinkedIn. The jail's interim director is now Capt. Washava Moye, Brown said.

Because of the staff shortages, many of those at Alvin S. Glenn remain locked in a cell 24 hours a day and unable to walk around or get recreation time, attorneys said during a news conference after Butler's death.

Civil rights attorney Stuart Andrews described inmates held in solitary confinement without legitimate reasons urinating in cell drains and defecating in foam containers that contained meals brought by officers.

“What we’re seeing in Alvin S. Glenn, it suggests there is a crisis that’s emerging,” Andrews said in February. “Deaths like Lason Butler’s don’t occur in a vacuum. They actually point to structural deficiencies in the operation of correctional facilities.”

Richland County Council discussed the detention center during a closed-door executive session April 5. When council members emerged, they voted to direct the county attorney to move forward as discussed privately with a matter related to the jail, without specifying the attorney's directive.

 

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

Columbia reporter

Stephen Fastenau is a local government reporter covering the City of Columbia, Richland County and general assignments. He returned to Columbia after 10 years as a reporter at The Island Packet and is a University of South Carolina graduate.

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