Mace, county leaders tour Charleston Co. jail amid death investigations

U.S. First District Congresswoman Nancy Mace visited the Al Cannon Detention Center Monday morning as questions linger about a series of inmate deaths there.
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 1:49 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 27, 2023 at 6:23 PM EDT
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - U.S. First District Congresswoman Nancy Mace visited the Al Cannon Detention Center Monday morning as questions linger about a series of inmate deaths there.

The Republican lawmaker was joined by Charleston County Council members Teddie Pryor and Herbert Sass for a tour of the jail, which houses around 1,000 people.

Seven have died inside the building over the last year and a half. One of the most recent was the Dec. 29 death of 28-year-old D’Angelo Brown. Brown died at MUSC eight days after being transported from the jail. Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said Brown died from Enteroaggregative Escherichia coli sepsis with septic shock and multiple organ system failure because of “gross medical neglect.” She ruled his death a homicide.

After Brown’s death, Rep. Marvin Pendarvis called on the Department of Justice to investigate the March 13 death of 50-year-old Julian Jenkins. Jenkins died after being in the jail’s medical ward since his booking. His cause and manner of death have not yet been determined, O’Neal said.

One focus for Mace was mental health concerns for inmates. Mace said 40 to 50 percent of people in the facility have mental issues.

“For some of these cases, they shouldn’t be in the jail, they should be where they’re getting better care for the mental health issues that they’re facing. There’s some people in this facility that cannot physically take care of themselves,” Mace said. “And this is not a mental health hospital. That’s an issue.”

Mace also said the state mental health hospital only has 300 beds making it especially hard for the detention deputies while the center is looking to fill around 100 staffing positions. To combat the staffing shortage at the detention center, the county raised pay to $46,000 and hired 12 new employees since the beginning of the year.

“This is one of the toughest jobs in America right now. And because of the mental health issues, we’re seeing it exponentially increase over the last year since COVID,” Mace said. “It’s only getting worse and our deputies, they’re not, that’s not their job, they’re not trained for that.”

Pryor invited Mace to tour the facility as he plans to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice to encourage a deeper investigation.

“We got to look at our judicial system, too, because if somebody is in for a bench warrant, it should be within 24 hours, see a magistrate,” Pryor said. “This guy died in his jail cell six days waiting to see a magistrate. So that’s also important, too. We have to look at all aspects or angles.”

The process is underway to choose a new medical provider for the detention center, with the contract for its current provider, Wellpath, set to end in June.

A five-person committee made up mostly of jail staffers and one Charleston County staff member, made its recommendation to select VitalCore Health Strategies to take over that role. Committee members said VitalCore scored the highest and would be “the most advantageous to the county” out of all the applicants.

The company, based in Topeka, Kansas, claims to be “raising the standard for correctional healthcare,” according to its website. Like Wellpath, VitalCore has also been sued previously for negligence and medical malpractice.

In 2019, the company was sued after a 48-year-old inmate at the Rio Arriba County Jail in New Mexico died from heart failure. The lawsuit alleged he had complained to VitalCore staff and was prescribed medicine that interacted with his heart medications.

Charleston County entered into the contract with Wellpath in 2020 while the county was in a state of emergency, allowing for a different department to sign off on the deal.

“What we want to do right now is get to the bottom of how they’re doing, what they’re getting paid for, and are the inmates suffering because of neglect, because they’re not doing the job?” Pryor said. “And so I think to point the fingers, ‘Who signed up? Who didn’t?’ We’re not here for that right now. We’re just here to find out what went wrong, and how to fix what went wrong.”

The county finance committee will receive the formal recommendation on Thursday and there will be discussions about prices to be conducted behind closed doors during an executive session. This does not necessarily mean that VitalCore will be chosen as the final candidate. Charleston County Council will get the final say, but that won’t come until after this week’s meeting.

The other providers who applied include Armor Correctional Health Services based in Miami and Naphcare based in Alabama. Both have previously applied for the contract.

VitalCore provided the following statement on Monday:

At this time, VitalCore is awaiting the final decision of Charleston County on the award of the inmate medical services contract. Until such time as a contract award is official and a contractual agreement is finalized, we cannot comment further as this remains an active procurement.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, released a statement after Mace’s tour of the facility:

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office thanks Congresswoman Mace and members of the Charleston County Council for taking us up on our public offer to tour the Al Cannon Detention Center. Because of the congresswoman’s busy schedule, the itinerary was abbreviated, but CCSO tour guides were able to show her and other officials areas of the facility where residents are booked and screened. They also saw the Behavioral Management Unit, or BMU, Medical Unit and an open-bay housing unit that is currently being converted to accommodate classrooms and other resident programs. Also attending were members of CCSO command staff and Detention Center supervisors. The officials asked a lot of great questions, many which our staff members were able to answer with the knowledge that internal and independent investigations are ongoing. We appreciate Congresswoman Mace and the Charleston County Council for taking the time to see the challenging but excellent work our detention deputies do around the clock.

Media was not allowed inside the facility during the tour.