Lawmakers take action after inmate’s death at Charleston County jail

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 6:38 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston area public officials are responding in anticipation of the potential release of footage that captured the final moments of a mentally ill man inside the Al Cannon Detention Center.

Jamal Sutherland died in the jail on Jan 5, just about 14 hours after he was initially booked into the detention center. Now, more than five months later, lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for accountability and justice.

Senator Marlon Kimpson described video of Sutherland’s death as “grim and heartbreaking,” though he had not personally viewed its contents and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has not yet to released any of the footage.

“Mental illness in and of itself is not a crime and certainly not deserving of death,” Kimpson said. “At a minimum, when law enforcement is involved, they must be adequately trained to intervene in such situations.”

Other lawmakers, Representative JA Moore and Representative Marvin Pendarvis, have filed three bills aimed at preventing future tragedies. The measures would address excessive force, the use of tasers and stun guns, and the treatment of inmates with mental conditions within the prison system.

“What happened to Jamal Sutherland was unacceptable and outrageous,” Rep. Moore said. “There must be accountability and we must take steps to make sure this never happens again. I have been in conversation with his family, and I will continue to work with them and make sure they are heard throughout this process. As this story unfolds, I ask that members of our community remain calm. I will not rest until justice is served and the people responsible for this are held fully accountable.”

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor also responded to Sutherland’s death investigation on Thursday. In a statement, Pryor extended sympathies and condolences to Sutherland’s family and called Sutherland’s death a tragic and unfortunate situation.

“Every party involved is committed to reviewing each aspect of his arrest and incarceration, as well as the events that occurred during an attempt to transport him to his bond hearing on assault charges on the morning of January 5, and his untimely death. Without question, Mr. Sutherland’s family deserves no less. As we go through this investigation, it is critically important that conclusions not be drawn prematurely, that theories not be passed along as truths, and that hearsay or innuendo not become seen as fact. We hope the members of the community, as well as the local and national media, will be respectful of the family, as well as those committed to getting to the answers about this tragedy. No stone will be unturned. No question unanswered and no responsibility will be unaccounted for. If it is determined that Mr. Sutherland’s death was the direct result of inappropriate actions, then the proper authorities will take the necessary steps. That is how our system works. That is how it must work. And we must let it,” Pryor said. “We recognize that this situation understandably raises legitimate and serious concerns. We recognize that emotions are high and concerns are justifiably warranted but it is important that we choose to address this, as a community at large, calmly and together. As a community, we have faced terrible challenges in the past together. We have shown the world during our darkest periods we are able and committed to working cohesively, respectfully, and honorably, and we must do so now.”

Charleston city officials also sent a message to downtown businesses informing them that, as a precaution for possible demonstrations, additional officers have been brought in and the city has opened its operations center.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg also released the following statement.

“As mayor, I speak on behalf of our entire city in saying that we mourn the tragic death of Jamal Sutherland, a young man who, like so many others, faced mental health challenges, and by all accounts was taking the appropriate steps to seek treatment. Our prayers are with his loved ones as they continue to grieve this unthinkable loss.

“While this tragedy did not take place in the city of Charleston or involve any city police officers or staff, I feel it’s important for all of us as citizens and leaders to speak out. For no matter where Jamal lived or died, his loss is a blow to our entire community.

“As of this evening, there are still more questions than answers in this case, and it’s critical that we get those answers in a timely fashion. But even as this investigation continues, one thing is already abundantly clear: Jamal Sutherland deserved the mental health treatment he sought. And it is up to all of us as community leaders to work together at the state, regional and local level to ensure that there are appropriate alternatives to jail for people in crisis--alternatives that allow them to receive the help they need and want in a supportive medical environment.

“As we await the results of this ongoing investigation, we must work together to repair our mental health and criminal justice systems. And we must not rest until we are confident that a tragedy like this can never happen again.”

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