SC inmates concerned about spread of COVID-19 and deaths in prisons

Updated: Sep. 29, 2020 at 9:14 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Attorney Mark Peper says he received letters and calls from inmates and their families who are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

In a letter, Peper says an inmate wrote that he felt he and other inmates were “waiting to die.”

As of Tuesday, the South Carolina Department of Corrections is reporting 31 inmates have died from coronavirus and there have been 2,140 positive cases among inmates.

SCDC says there have also been two staff members who have died from the virus and 470 positive cases among staff members.

“I’m concerned these people have made a mistake, they are paying their penalty no doubt about it, they are where they’re supposed to be serving their time,” Peper said. “You can’t simply take the key, lock the door, and throw it away and act as if anything that happens there is okay. It’s not.”

Peper says there are legal limitations when it comes to inmates who do not have COVID-19 but are concerned about the possibility of getting it.

“I’m getting all these calls from inmates who are concerned,” Peper said. “In addition to walking them through what they maybe could do to make sure they don’t catch it. When I’m having to tell them is until and unless you catch it there’s nothing actionable or there’s nothing that a lawyer can do to benefit you unfortunately.”

The spokesperson for the SCDC Chrysti Shain says the department is taking several measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. Shain says they only allow critical staff to enter prisons and have stopped all other visitations.

She says inmates are taught COVID-19 safety precautions and are advised to clean their areas every two hours and are provided cleaners and hand sanitizers.

Shain says the inmates are in charge of cleaning their cells and staff clean common areas. She says they are taught about social distancing, but it’s difficult to do in a prison setting.

“They don’t have many options as far as where they can go where they can be at certain times,” Peper said. “When they try to social distance, that’s all good and well but you’re in a pod with a number of other inmates, you’re in a very small cell with at least two people at night, and so there’s just not many opportunities to take advantage of the CDC guidelines."

SCDC says inmates were also provided two masks and can request additional masks if needed.

Department officials say they test inmates who are symptomatic and have designated areas where they can quarantine.

In July, SCDC says they began mass testing inmates for coronavirus in prisons where they were seeing a greater number cases. Shain says the higher number of cases being reported at some prisons are because of an increase in testing.

Broad River prison in Columbia is reporting 333 active COVID-19 cases. Mass testing efforts are underway at the facility.

Department officials said Broad River houses a portion of inmates who have health conditions. For example, it has a hospice, dialysis and chemo units.

SCDC officials say they began mass testing in July after the state legislature approved CARES Act funds to go to the department. They also have a partnership with MUSC to process the test results.

The American Civil Liberties Union released the following statement saying in part:

"The spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths among South Carolina’s prison population is both tragic and predicted. It is essential that those with the authority to act do everything in their immense power to prevent future deaths from COVID-19 in correctional settings, including reducing the number of people held in South Carolina’s prisons. It is well within SCDC Director Stirling’s power to petition the SC Board of Paroles and Pardons for the release of incarcerated people who are considered terminally ill, permanently incapacitated, or geriatric. Doing less than everything possible to save lives is neither a solution nor a good faith effort.

What’s happening to incarcerated people right now is inexcusable, and the unfortunate reality is that the damage caused by SCDC’s and elected officials' failure to get in front of this problem has created a footprint that extends well beyond the property lines of South Carolina’s prisons. In addition to the 2,148 incarcerated people who have become infected, as of September 29, 474 SCDC staff, who return home to their communities at the end of their shifts, reported testing positive for COVID-19. We should be extremely concerned for those who are incarcerated as well as the greater communities that will inevitably pay the price for our state’s failure to prevent the worst from happening in these institutions."

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