Brianna Beland was in the Charleston County jail, charged with shoplifting a $3.94 pack of color pens. On the fifth day, she died.
Beland should have never been in a jail cell, but instead in a hospital or drug treatment facility. A heroin addict, she had spent “a couple of days” vomiting in the jail before becoming unresponsive in the jail’s infirmary in August, according to a Medical University of South Carolina autopsy.
“She was transported to the Emergency Department where she was pronounced deceased after resuscitative efforts were unsuccessful,” wrote Dr. Ellen Riemer. “Ms. Beland had a history of drug abuse, including reported heroin abuse.”
Beland, a 31-year-old mom, was one of three people to die in the county jail in the last four months. In July, Quindell Huggins, 28, committed suicide two days after being arrested for not paying child support. Ronald Norman, 57, died in the jail in October, three weeks after being charged with trespassing for panhandling at a gas station around the corner from his North Charleston nursing home.
The real reason they were in jail was not shoplifting, failing to pay child support or trespassing, but because they were poor. The Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, named for the man who has been sheriff for three decades, is the state’s largest county jail and is considered to have some of the best inmate conditions. A sprawling complex of five buildings on Leeds Avenue in North Charleston, the jail has about 1,200 inmates, more than 90 percent of them men. Sixty-five percent are African American. Far more than that are poor — too many of them disposable people.
Consider the tragic story of Brianna Beland.
In April, North Charleston police were called to the Walmart at the Tanger Mall after a security guard saw Beland put a pack of 18 color pens in her bag, according to a police report. Beland was given a summons and a court date. She had no previous shoplifting convictions, the report said.
She never showed up for that May court date. In June, Timmy Newsome, her partner and the father of her 4-year-old daughter Harmony, died. An obituary said Newsome, 39, died of “an illness while fishing off the coast of Virginia.”
Life was a struggle. The couple lived in Lot No. 2 of a trailer park on Dorsey Avenue in North Charleston. She cleaned vacation rentals and studied at Trident Tech to become a paralegal. And battled heroin. Harmony was in Springfield, Mo., with her grandmother.
On Monday, Aug. 14, Beland was arrested in Mount Pleasant on an outstanding bench warrant for shoplifting and taken in handcuffs to the county jail. She was due to serve 25 days in jail or pay a fine of $1,030, according to the bench warrant.
On Friday, Beland was experiencing heroin withdrawal and was moved to the infirmary, according to a jail incident report. Then she was moved from one room to another because “she kept failing out of the bed.” She said she couldn’t walk or move. She said she was hot and asked help to take her shirt off.
The nurse left to tend other patients “because it took priority over a patient being hot,” the report said. When the nurse returned an hour or so later, Beland was on the toilet, her head against the wall and vomit on the floor. She was unresponsive and pronounced dead at MUSC just after midnight.
“In light of the historical information, the toxicological results, and the gross and microscopic autopsy findings, it is the opinion of the pathologist that the decedent died as a result of complications of withdrawal from chronic opiate dependence/addiction,” according to the autopsy.
In the midst of a national opioids epidemic, it would be easy to write this off as just one more awful story. But it was just two years ago that Joyce Curnell also died in the county jail.
Like Beland, Curnell, 50, was arrested on a bench warrant in a shoplifting case. The impoverished Edisto woman, who had never spent a day in her life behind bars, was handcuffed at a hospital where she was being treated for a stomach illness. Taken to the county jail, she vomited all night. Jailers gave her a trash bag. She died the next day.
In August, the sheriff’s office and the jail’s health-care provider agreed to a $1.1 million settlement with the Curnell family.
There have been nine deaths at the jail in the last five years, including the three in the last four months. The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the latest deaths at the request of the county jail.
“The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office takes the safety and well-being of every person who enters the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center as a top priority and a central focus of its mission in public safety,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
The jail’s medical facility is accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and is the only county jail infirmary certified by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, the sheriff’s office said. The infirmary has a staff of more than 40, including a physician or physician assistant on duty seven days a week.
Many of those in the county jail need to be there – accused murderers, rapists and drug dealers. But there are many others who don’t, and the people who run the place know that and have, in fact, been doing something about it.
In 2016, the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council won a $2.25 million MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce the jail population by increasing alternatives for those dealing with mental illness and substance abuse. It also plans to create automatic court reminders and improve access to lawyers. The goal is to cut the average daily jail population by 25 percent by April 2019.
“I think it is tragic,” Kristy Danford, the council’s project director, said of the rash of jailhouse deaths. “Everywhere across the country we find these issues. The question is what are we as community members doing about it?”
The answer is not enough. The stories of Brianna Beland, Quindell Huggins, Ronald Norman and Joyce Curnell are painful testimony of the work still to be done.
After Joyce Curnell, a desperately poor Edisto woman, was arrested for shoplifting $20 in candy and beer from the E-Z Shop, she was saddled with $2,200 in fines and fees. Then she died in the county jail after a well-meaning but misguided attempt by her son to rescue her from alcoholism went terribly awry. Now add in a $1.1 million legal settlement.
Such is the cost of a justice system that overburdens the poor with fines they cannot pay and then stuffs our jails with them when they can’t. This is, in part, why the U.S. incarceration rate, while declining in the last decade, is still more than four times the world average.
This sorry tale ricocheted around the world last year when Curnell’s lawyers went public with charges that she had died in the county jail for want of water. In August, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the jail’s health-care provider agreed to pay the Curnell family $1.1 million, according to a previously unreported court filing.
The county jail’s health-care provider, Carolina Center for Occupational Health, and Dr. Theodolph Jacobs, paid $850,000, and the sheriff’s office paid $250,000 to the Curnell family, according to the agreement. About $465,000 of that went to the family’s lawyers.
“A devoted mother, grandmother, sister and friend was forever lost, and no amount of money can bring her back,” said James B. Moore III of the Evans Moore law firm. “This settlement is just one step forward in the grieving process for the Curnell family.”
The sheriff’s office said Curnell arrived at the jail “in very poor health,” and that the jail’s video disproved the family’s claim that she had been deprived of water. “Regardless, it is the sheriff’s hope that the resolution of this lawsuit will help the family heal,” it said in a statement.
Herb Drayton, chief executive of Carolina Center for Occupational Health, said neither he nor Dr. Jacobs would comment. Neither admitted to wrongdoing in the settlement.
At the time of her death in 2015, Curnell, 50, was living on Edisto Island in a ramshackle mobile home with no electricity or running water. She was an alcoholic with an assortment of health problems.
In 2011, Curnell had her only brush with the law. She was arrested for shoplifting and ordered to pay $2,200 in fines and fees, a mountain of debt for a poor woman in a trailer. Curnell chipped away, sometimes paying as little as $25 a month. In the winter of 2013, when the tourists and the jobs go away, she stopped paying. She still owed about $1,150.
For Joyce Curnell, a difficult life got even harder. She had gotten by cleaning houses and deveining shrimp at a restaurant. Now, facing a warrant for her arrest, she became afraid to go out. It became even harder for her to work.
Then in July 2015, Curnell was arrested at a West Ashley hospital, where she was being treated for a stomach bug. Her son, Javon, called police to tell them that there was a outstanding warrant for her arrest. His aim: to get his mom treatment for her drinking.
Things went terribly wrong. At the county jail, Curnell spent hours vomiting. A nurse checked on her periodically, and was told by other inmates and jailers that Curnell “was detoxing.” A guard gave her a trash bag.
Twenty-seven hours after being booked at the jail, Curnell was dead. An autopsy identified the cause of death as the stomach illness that sent her to the hospital in the first place, complicated by underlying health problems of alcoholism and sickle cell disease.
But in court filings, Curnell’s lawyers said the hours of vomiting drained her body of water. “Simply put,” Dr. Maria Gibson, hired as an expert witness for the family, said in an affidavit, “Ms. Curnell died because she was deprived of water.”
It’s worth remembering where all this began: $20 in candy and beer stolen from the E-Z Shop.
“I didn’t even care if I lived or died.”
Those were the words of Walter Scott, long before he became famous in death. Almost no one knows Quindell Huggins, but both men were incarcerated repeatedly at the Charleston County jail for failure to pay child support. And both are dead.
Scott, facing another bench warrant for his arrest, was shot in the back by a North Charleston policeman in 2015 when he ran after being pulled over for a broken brake light. His death became part of the national outcry against the shooting of blacks by white cops.
Huggins, 28, committed suicide in July in the county jail two days after being arrested again for not paying child support. He was found in his cell sitting on the floor in an upright position with “a cloth-like material” wrapped around his neck and tied to the bed, according to a county jail incident report.
The threat of jail can motivate someone who is able but unwilling to pay child support. But jailing the poor for not paying is self-defeating, trapping them in a cycle of debt, unemployment and imprisonment. A 2009 survey found that one in eight inmates in South Carolina had been jailed for failure to pay child support.
Scott owed about $18,000 and had been jailed three times for failure to pay at the time he was killed. “I just stopped doing everything,” Scott told the Post and Courier in 2003 about being arrested. “I just closed myself off in a little shell and started doing things I shouldn’t have been doing.”
Huggins owed $26,322 and had been arrested four times, according to Charleston County Family Court records.
Huggins, who grew up in North Charleston, was 17 when his 18-year-old girlfriend had a baby girl in 2006. About 18 months later, he agreed to pay $55.65 a week in child support, the records show. He was unemployed when he signed the agreement, unemployed when he died. Huggins made two payments totaling $222.60 and never made another after June 2008.
There is no evidence in the records that Huggins ever had a lawyer. In a filing after his death, the attorney for the mother asked the court to end support and remove the arrears from the record. “The Defendant passed away on 7/21/2017. Ongoing support should be terminated as of the date of death, and all remaining arrears should be made directly payable to the payee. Any outstanding warrant should be rescinded.”
Huggins’s only child, now 11, was listed among the survivors in his obituary.
Ronald Norman’s job at the North Charleston assisted living facility where he lived was carrying the garbage to the big blue dumpster out front. He was paid in cigarettes.
Every day Norman, a big man of maybe 250 pounds with salt-and-pepper hair and a beard, would walk across Remount Road and buy a half pint of Wild Irish Rose ($1.10) or Barton Vodka ($2). Store manager Eileen Pagan called him “Mumbles” because she couldn’t understand what he was saying.
“He’d say, ‘Give me a half pint.’ You could understand that OK,” she said.
On Oct. 2, the day after his 57th birthday, North Charleston police arrested Norman for trespassing after he had been previously warned about panhandliing in the parking lot of the 24-hour gas station next to the liquor store. He was taken to the county jail, where he sat awaiting a trial, unable to post a $300 bond.
He was found dead in his bed on the morning of Oct. 21, almost three weeks after he was arrested and four days before his trial was scheduled. The coroner has yet to rule on a cause of death.
Norman, mentally ill and alcoholic, was the third inmate to die in the county jail in four months. He had spent the last seven years at the Langit assisted living home, just blocks from where Quindell Huggins, who committed suicide in the jail in July, once lived in a sketchy neighborhood of small brick duplexes.
At the assisted living home, about 60 residents live in three clapboard houses. The vast majority of residents are black; they are poor, relying on Social Security or disability checks to pay for their care. There is no drinking or smoking in the rooms and you have to be in by 10 p.m.
Sitting on the front porch of the nursing home, residents remembered Norman as a good guy who mostly stayed to himself. He liked to smoke and drink and mumbled a lot, they said.
“He was a nice guy,” said Frankie Jackson, Norman’s best friend. “He was OK.”
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at email@example.com.