Some South Carolina law enforcement agencies have failed to inform the state of jail inmates who die in their custody despite a decades-old law mandating they do so, a Post and Courier analysis of death notices from the past decade shows.
Since 2009, at least 153 people have died while under the watch of local detention centers across the state.
But no one can say for sure how many deaths have actually occurred because the official records are incomplete.
Fluctuating annual totals compared against news reports show that at least some deaths have gone unrecorded in recent years. Tallies for the past decade ranged from only two deaths reported one year to more than two dozen another.
A law dating to 1978 requires officials at 57 local jails and six prison camps report deaths in their custody to the S.C. Department of Corrections within 72 hours. Failing to do so is a misdemeanor offense that carries a fine of up to $100.
Facility managers are supposed to log information, including the inmate's name, their arresting charges, the cause of death and circumstances, and the number of detention officers and inmates at the facility at the time. The state relies on law enforcement agencies to self-report.
"We don't know if somebody dies and they don’t tell us," said Chrysti Shain, an SCDC spokeswoman.
SCDC is tasked with maintaining permanent records, but that’s where the agency’s responsibility ends. Prison officials said they don’t analyze the jail death reports, and no one had asked for the public documents in years until The Post and Courier's request.
County coroners handle deaths in custody, but they do not track the incidents for any statistical purpose.
Jail authorities can voluntarily report death information to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which details national criminal justice trends.
Roughly a quarter of all people incarcerated in America are housed in local jails, but relatively little data about this population is monitored, said Nancy Fishman, project director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. Accurate death statistics would paint a more complete picture of who's locked up and how they're treated behind bars.
"It’s obviously critical data, and to have nobody putting eyes on it or asking any questions is … not surprising, but still should be shocking," Fishman said.
Since 2009, suicide by asphyxiation accounted for nearly half of South Carolina's jail inmate deaths in cases in which the cause was known and clearly listed. Other people succumbed to a range of medical issues. The records included cases of inmates who died in hospitals. Most were awaiting trial.
The reports showed that the Greenville County Detention Center led the pack with 28 reported deaths, but half of those cases were people who died while released on a home incarceration program. Horry, Charleston and Richland counties followed behind with between 12 and 16 deaths each.
The State Law Enforcement Division investigates these cases when an agency requests it. But similar to officer-involved shootings, no state law requires an independent probe.
As a state representative in the 1970s, Vic Rawl co-sponsored the bill requiring that deaths in jails be reported. While Rawl, now a Charleston County councilman, couldn’t recall the impetus for the legislation, he said he and other lawmakers aimed to capture data and use it to trigger oversight.
"The idea was to make sure that things didn't get swept under the rug," he said. "The reality? I doubt seriously if anybody gets involved in checking on that stuff unless you’ve got a family member that is a decedent."
While it seems that South Carolina's reports have been gathering dust lately, some states make their records easily accessible to the public. Texas, for example, maintains an online database of deaths in custody.
Fishman emphasized that people detained in local jails represent our communities.
"This is not some other some group of people who are alien to us," she said. "These are real people who have real stories who are dying in our jails."