Since the beginning of 2015, 101 South Carolinians have been shot and killed by police. Some were shooting at or in other ways posed a danger to the police, others didn’t, but that’s not the point here. In that same period, at least 146 have died in local jails in our state. Over the past 12½ years, the total was at least 253, according to a new database of jail deaths.
There’s so much to unpack there, but let’s start with the easiest: That database wasn’t created by local, state or federal officials. It was created by Hilton Head’s Island Packet newspaper, because no local, state or federal officials maintain such a database, at least not a complete one, and the newspaper figured — correctly — that we ought to know how many people die in government custody.
The newspaper's list was pieced together using news reports, reports that jails are supposed to send to the state Corrections Department and reports that coroners are supposed to send to the state Department of Public Safety under a new federal law. Supposed to are key words. The newspaper found 30 deaths that hadn’t been reported to either agency (coroners reported just two of at least 23 jail deaths in 2020); it expressed no confidence that it had found them all.
In 52 cases that were reported as required by law, the cause of death wasn’t given. Of those where it was given, 66 people committed suicide. At least 18 died in the Charleston County Jail, which tied for second with Spartanburg and Richland and trailed only Greenville County, which had at least 27 jail deaths.
These weren’t all hardened criminals dying in our jails. A tiny fraction of inmates in county jails are serving sentences of less than a year after being convicted for minor, nonviolent crimes. The vast majority are awaiting trial, because they can’t afford bail — many arrested for petty crimes whose sentences might not even include any jail time.
The Island Packet’s database shows that at least 205 of the dead — 87% of the 236 deaths where custody status was available — had not been convicted of a crime.
Slap a serious sanction on jails that don’t send in their skimpy one-page reports when people die in their custody, and we’d probably have fairly complete information. Add the salary of, oh, a quarter of a full-time employee, and the Corrections Department could build an easy-to-use, searchable database — like the one the newspaper created and has made public — that could be updated monthly or even weekly.
That’s something the Legislature needed to do when The Post and Courier revealed the problem in 2019, and it’s something the Legislature should do today. And we don’t just need to know how many people died in our jails and when and where. We also need thorough investigations by independent investigators and not by the sheriff departments that run the jails.
Those investigations are crucial because some of these deaths are homicides, which means either another inmate or a jail official killed someone and should be prosecuted. We also need to know about suicides, accidents and medical problems that lead to deaths, because those investigations can identify changes — such as better monitoring or medical care — that could prevent similar deaths.
Of course, the reason the Legislature hasn’t put any teeth into the 1978 law requiring jails to report deaths, and why it hasn’t required independent investigations of jail deaths (just as it hasn’t required independent investigations of people killed by police) is that inmates’ deaths aren’t important to enough legislators. They’re not important to enough legislators because they’re not important to enough voters. And they’re not important to enough voters because … we don’t know … maybe because there aren’t enough Christians in South Carolina?
Not to single out a religion — we all are supposed to care about human lives, after all, and particularly human lives that are lost when the state, on our behalf, has them in custody.
But people who claim to be Christians do constitute the overwhelming majority of South Carolinians, and Christians were told very specifically by Jesus to care about prisoners and others in need, because “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”