Jamarcus Dawkins would have been 20 years old today. His mother will mark the day by visiting his grave at Youngs Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Gaffney.
Dawkins was found unconscious in his cell at Kirkland Correctional on a Friday night in May and pronounced dead two hours later in a Columbia hospital — another victim of the silent epidemic of suicides hidden behind the high walls of South Carolina’s state prisons.
There were a record 10 suicides in S.C. prisons (and possibly two more that have yet to be confirmed by local coroners) in 2018, which would be twice the deaths of any year in at least the last decade. Add in nine homicides — including the seven at Lee Correctional, scene of America’s worst prison riot in a quarter century — and 2018 has the distinction of being the deadliest year in the history of the prisons.
South Carolina prison homicides and suicides have risen for at least five years in a row even as the prison population has declined. In 2013, there were a total of four murders and suicides; last year there were a record 21. That surpassed the record of 18 set a year earlier. Please note the trend.
(And this is only in the state prisons. Who knows what is going on in county jails, where suicide is the leading cause of death nationwide?)
Dawkins, a skinny teenager who went by “Mark-Mark,” had been at Kirkland for only about 45 days, serving time for a series of burglaries, including at two car dealerships and a sporting goods store. The Richland County coroner ruled his death a suicide, but his mother isn’t buying it. She thinks the prison is covering up his murder.
“No one should have to lose a son the way I lost my son,” Ronchetta Crawford, 46, told me in December. “Next month I have to go to his grave to wish him happy birthday. It is not fair to me. It is not fair to my family.”
Four months earlier, Travis Steffey committed suicide in the same maximum-security prison. Like Dawkins, Steffey was young, poor and a high school dropout serving time for a nonviolent crime, a first offense for dealing methamphetamine in Aiken. He was 22 and died a painful death after swallowing paper clips, the coroner said.
It was a bad year in the prisons. In addition to the spike in suicides, the seven deadly hours of rioting at Lee Correctional in the tiny town of Bishopville put the state prison system in the national news for all the wrong reasons. There were questions about why correctional officers waited so long before stopping the riot, questions about why cell door locks were broken, allowing inmates to roam free. Lawsuits have followed; no one has been charged.
With far too few corrections officers, the gangs have taken over many of the prisons. The South Carolina Department of Corrections’ answer to the staffing shortage has been lockdowns — thousands of inmates confined to their cells for up to 24 hours a day, allowed out as little as an hour a week.
“We are still constantly locked down,” an inmate at Kershaw Correctional, a medium-security prison, wrote me in an email from his bootleg cellphone. “We haven’t had showers in over 14 days. No air ventilation. No heat. Mold on the walls. No mental health. No medical. We are living a terrible life back here, and it is only getting worse.”
Lockdowns build angry people, not better people. Assaults on corrections officers, for instance, have more than doubled in four years. And the lockdowns have done nothing to slow suicides.
It is easy to understand why: Chronic understaffing leads to more lockdowns, which leads to more suicides. Lock up mentally ill people — and the prisons are packed with them — in tiny cells for long enough, make treatment more inaccessible and bad things happen. You can count on it.
In 2016, the Corrections Department settled a long-running class-action lawsuit by agreeing to provide better mental health services to prisoners. Even before the Lee riot, a confidential report completed for the department in March found the staffing shortages and lockdowns were making it harder to provide health care services promised in the settlement. Lee made a bad situation much worse.
The Corrections Department blames the spike in suicides on a growing number of inmates with mental illness and says it’s working with the Medical University of South Carolina on a suicide prevention program. At least as likely is that more mentally ill prisoners are simply being diagnosed since the class-action settlement. Corrections adds that it’s a mistake to draw conclusions from a single year’s data.
Lockdowns are not the solution. Instead, the answer is in some combination of fewer inmates, more correctional officers and better mental health care. This will require a new round of criminal justice reform and more money from the Legislature. This is not something the Corrections Department can do by itself.
Jamarcus Dawkins and Travis Steffey were in prison for a reason, but they shouldn’t have died in prison.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.