COLUMBIA — Richland County has not begun a search for a new jail director nearly four months after firing former Director Tyrell Cato.
The county is instead concentrating on improvements to the jail under the direction of interim Director Crayman Harvey, County Administrator Leonardo Brown said Jan. 5.
"Right now, our focus is on making sure that there is a safe and opening and welcoming environment for the employees ... working there and the (people) housed there," Brown said.
Harvey, who began as assistant director under Cato in July, has proposed extensive changes to the jail, which has had a host of problems in recent years, including a lack of staffing and lawsuits alleging "medieval" conditions for certain inmates.
The solitary confinement unit, a focus of a federal lawsuit alleging brutal conditions for inmates with mental illnesses, was shut down, Harvey said in a November presentation to a county committee. Instead, the jail is being remodeled to create units for detainees with mental health problems and medical issues, as well as a "step-down unit" to keep aggressive inmates separate from the general population.
"I think (Harvey's) doing a good job in helping us move these along," Brown said. "So, we will keep assessing that, and at the appropriate time, if necessary, I will begin a search."
Situation different from past
The jail has gone longer stretches in the past without a director. The position was vacant for a year between 2017 and 2018, when former Director Ronaldo Myers took another job before returning to Alvin S. Glenn.
Six months after Myers left in September 2021, the Department of Corrections sent county administration a letter asking when a new director would be hired. In that case, the deputy director was also set to leave, prompting concern over who would run the jail.
The letter also pointed out all jails are required to have a facility manager under the department's minimum standards. Brown hired Cato around two months later.
"We wrote the letter because the Detention Director position had been vacant for quite some time and we learned that the Deputy Director, who had been serving as Acting Director, was about to leave," Corrections Department spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said in an email Jan. 6.
This time, the detention center has a designated interim director, lessening the concern that prompted the last letter.
Keeping up with regulations
While details are still in the works, Brown said he'd also like to hire a compliance officer to ensure the jail is up to par with local, state and federal regulations.
"A lot of the times, people raise questions as to, 'Can I take a need to someone and have it addressed and do it in a way that doesn't put me in harm's way or my peers or thoughts about what I'm doing?'" Brown said.
Lawmakers and legislators raised the same issue in past calls for the county to put Sheriff Leon Lott in charge of the jail. Because Lott is an elected official, he would have the freedom to make changes and ask for more funding without worrying about upsetting higher-ups, state Rep. Seth Rose said previously.
The new position would address that type of concern, Brown said.
"I want to create a level of comfort where, when there's an issue that needs to be addressed, one is not thinking about whether or not this is going to affect (their) employment," Brown said. "They can just tell me what needs to be done and feel confident that there is someone there ... overseeing that."
In the past, the jail has fallen short of state regulations and been the subject of lawsuits over its conditions.
A state Department of Corrections inspection released in September 2021 found the jail to be overcrowded and understaffed. The county has since raised base pay for detention officers and frozen positions to help with hiring.
A federal lawsuit alleged inmates with mental illnesses were isolated in units filled with mold, pests and standing water. Similar allegations came up in another federal lawsuit by the family of Lason Butler, who died in the jail in February 2022. County Coroner Naida Rutherford ruled his death a homicide, a designation that doesn't require intent but was determined based on jail staff's inaction, she said at the time.
Most recently, a former inmate filed a state lawsuit alleging he developed gangrene while in the jail. The jail has since changed medical providers from the one named in the lawsuit.
Why the job is vacant
Brown fired previous director Cato on Sept. 9, saying in Cato's termination letter it was because Cato failed to disclose during the hiring process that he had been fired from his last job as Kershaw County jail administrator for allegations of sexual misconduct.
Cato denied the allegations during an internal investigation in Kershaw. A grievance committee upheld his termination there. Brown denied Cato a grievance in Richland County, Cato's lawyer said previously.
Richland County did not call Cato's previous employer or request his job history from the state Criminal Justice Academy, which maintains law enforcement officer records, until after hiring Cato.
The academy is investigating Richland County for failing to complete a background check before hiring Cato, which goes against an order set by the state Law Enforcement Training Council.
Cato's lawyer, Beth Bowen, said Cato told Assistant Richland County Administrator John Thompson of his firing when Thompson asked. Brown previously said it was "not relevant" whether Cato said he told anyone else because he should have told Brown directly.
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