Richard Allen Patterson

Richard Allen Patterson, as a teenager, with his mom, Deborah Lawson. (Provided)

Allen Patterson had been awake more than three days straight in the prison psych ward when he saw snakes in his hands and in his legs. So he bit them out of his body.

“You what,” the lawyer asked?

“I bit them out,” Patterson said matter of factly. “Yes, sir. And, you know, it just gets to realistic points, you know — it gets worse the longer I stay up.”

Patterson was a key witness in what would become a landmark case requiring South Carolina to improve mental health care in its prisons.

Eight years later, however, he is dead, one more mentally ill inmate lost to the state’s troubled prison system.

Patterson’s death in October was ruled a suicide; his mother thinks he was murdered by guards at Broad River Correctional in Columbia.

This is the third year I’ve done my grim annual accounting of homicides and suicides in the state prisons.

Because someone has to do it.

After the deadliest year in the history of the prisons in 2018 — driven, in part, by America’s deadliest prison riot in a quarter century — the numbers were slightly better last year. There were 17 homicides and suicides in 2019, down from a record 21 in 2018.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults also declined for the third year in a row; inmate assaults on employees, though, were up for a fourth year.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections attributes the decline in violence, in part, to the fact that inmates are no longer on constant lockdown and are allowed out of their cells for more programs and recreation.

The department says it is also working to reduce contraband and helping prisoners learn to resolve disputes without violence.

Progress on meeting the goals of the 2016 settlement of the decade-old class-action mental health lawsuit, however, has been painfully slow. Three years in, a court-ordered panel that monitors the settlement found “SCDC has not achieved substantial compliance as required in the majority of the criteria.”

“Inmates in SCDC living with mental illness continue to suffer harm, much of which was identified during the trial, and has been continuously identified during the past three years,” the latest report said in March.

One result: a record 12 suicides in 2018 and 10 more last year, about twice the pace over the last decade.

This is what happens when, severely short of staff, you lock up mentally ill people in tiny cells by themselves, sometimes for years. One in four inmates is classified as mentally ill.

Richard Allen Patterson — diagnosed as manic depressive, bipolar and more — started cutting himself at 12 and dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

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At 19, he was sentenced to 20 years for burglary in his hometown of Clinton.

By 37, after spending almost half his life bouncing violently around the state’s prison system, he was found hanging in his cell.

His was hardly a distinguished life, except for this: For one single hour on Feb. 13, 2012, he sat on the witness stand in a Columbia courtroom and explained with unusual power and clarity what it was like to be mentally ill and locked up year after year alone in a cell, sometimes naked on the cold concrete floor or strapped, just as naked, to a restraint chair for hours. Or gassed. Or beaten.

Patterson, as his mother Deborah Lawson says, “was not a model prisoner.” He was convicted of assaulting a correctional officer.

He spent more than three consecutive years in lockup. He cut himself repeatedly; he re-opened old wounds by jamming screws in them.

He had tried to hang himself.

“It was driving him crazy,” his mom said of the endless lockups. She didn’t see her son for eight years.

Shuffled from one prison to another, he recalled one stretch on Lee Correctional’s crisis intervention ward:

“I was completely naked. I didn’t have no blanket or nothing,” he testified that day in Columbia. “I have been stripped out naked for five days with nothing. And the Captain came on the wing, and I beat on the window. So the Lieutenant got mad and come over to my cell and told me to quit beating on the window. And I asked him, man, can I please just get a blanket? He opened my food flap and with a big can of fogger sprayed the whole can in the cell.”

Q. Did you ask for a blanket again after that?

A. No, sir.

The SCDC settled the case four years after Patterson testified, but he would never leave the prison system alive. He was found in his cell, hanging by a sheet.

The Richland County coroner ruled it a suicide; the State Law Enforcement Division is investigating. It was one of five deaths last year at Broad River.

Patterson’s mother says her son told her on the phone two days before he died that he had been badly injured in a fight with correctional officers. He said a guard had peered through the flap on his cell: “Oh, you ain’t dead yet? We thought you would be dead by now.”

But, then, who is going to believe a guy who bit snakes out of his hands and his legs? Allen Patterson went to prison a mentally ill teenager. Seventeen years later, he died an even sicker man.

Steve Bailey can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.