Richland jail to get ‘top to bottom’ outside review

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Richland County Council member Seth Rose

— Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center is to undergo major scrutiny by outside auditors focusing on pay, medical services and mental health programs.

“It will be a top-to-bottom examination, with emphasis on mental health issues and medical programs,” Richland County Council member Seth Rose said Sunday. “A study on pay and salaries has already begun.”

Rose is chairman of an ad hoc jail review committee named by council earlier this year in the wake of a brutal February beating of an inmate by a guard.

After the beating, one guard was fired and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. Six others were terminated because, officials said, they knew about the beating but did not report it.

The inmate, Robert Sweeper III, was a homeless man sleeping in a doorway on the University of South Carolina campus early last February. Campus police picked him and took him to jail, where he was booked on trespassing charges. Officials logging him in suspected he might be in mental distress and put him a special unit where he would be continuously watched, according to authorities.

While in that unit, a guard beat Sweeper so severely, he would have died had he not been taken to Palmetto Health Richland hospital, where medical staff alerted law enforcement to Sweeper’s severe injuries, Richland County sheriff’s officials said. Sweeper had a collapsed lung, broken ribs and internal injuries. Jail guards waited until four days after the beating to take him to a hospital.

Sweeper has filed a lawsuit against the county. His attorney, Dick Harpootlian, said Sunday his client’s case is “an extreme example” of what can happen when standards aren’t met.

“Hopefully, this study will give them a chance to correct deficiencies,” Harpootlian said.

Rose, who is a former 5th Circuit assistant prosecutor and current Columbia defense attorney, said the study on pay is already underway.

One preliminary finding county officials made earlier this year is that the county jail has trouble attracting and keeping competent jail guards because the pay is low compared with surrounding counties. For example, Richland County guards’ starting salary is about $8,000 per year lower than that of Lexington County jail guards.

The detention center has about 800 inmates daily, and about 250 of them – about 30 percent – have mental issues severe enough for them to see mental health professionals each month.

Glenn’s mentally troubled inmates are a higher percentage of its inmate population than most other large jails in the state, officials said. In 2012, the jail reported 1,900 suicide threats. Of those, 40 inmates attempted suicide. One succeeded.

The pay study is being carried out by Buck Consultants, a global human-resources consulting firm, and is expected to be finished this fall.

As for the “top to bottom” study, county officials are expected to choose this week among four nationally recognized consultants, Rose said. Experience will be a determining factor in choosing who gets tapped, he said. The cost is expected to be under $100,000, he said.

Committee members wanted to have an independent review by an outside group with a good reputation.

“They will say, ‘Here’s what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing well, and here’s what you can do better,” Rose said. “Everything will be evaluated.”

Once the winner has been chosen, county officials will negotiate a contract, whose cost is yet to be determined. The study should start by mid-October and be finished by February or March, Rose said.

“The best way for Richland County citizens to know if they are getting the best product for their tax dollars is to have this independent review,” Rose said.

Already, Rose said, jail officials have installed several new security cameras inside the jail since the February beating.

The jail’s budget is about $20 million a year. The jail was last evaluated by an outside firm five years ago.

The jail, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, is seven miles southeast of Columbia, out Bluff Road on the way to Congaree National Park.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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