At the new Hampton Roads Regional Jail superintendent’s South Carolina detention center, a guard beat a mentally ill man nearly to death in 2013. The guard went to federal prison. Several others were fired for not reporting the attack. More than $1 million was paid to settle lawsuits. And outside investigators probed the jail, outlining what needed to change in a $100,000, 104-page report.
But no one asked Ronaldo Myers about that scandal during his interview last week with the Hampton Roads Regional Jail board, whose facility is under federal investigation for its treatment of mentally ill inmates. Members voted unanimously to hire him later that day.
The aftermath of the beating of a homeless man at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia, S.C., echoes the outrage following two high-profile deaths at the Regional Jail: Like Jamycheal Mitchell and Henry Clay Stewart, Robert Sweeper was locked up for a petty crime and didn’t get adequate medical care.
And like the deaths of Mitchell and Stewart, Sweeper’s beating led to a Justice Department civil rights investigation.
During Myers’ final interview with the Regional Jail board, though, that “didn’t come up,” he said.
Myers also said he didn’t make any major changes because of what happened with Sweeper or the ensuing investigation. The guards were fired, and he reiterated to those still on the job that, if they suspected abuse, they needed to report it.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “We just reinforced what was already in place.”
Myers, 59, will soon be in charge of the 1,300-inmate Regional Jail in Portsmouth, which accepts prisoners – often sick or suffering with mental illness – from city jails around Hampton Roads. He starts March 13 and will be paid $145,000 a year.
Acting Superintendent and Chesapeake Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan said he and other board members didn’t know about Sweeper’s beating, but they’re not worried.
“I have full confidence he’ll come in and do a very good job,” O’Sullivan said.
Myers has worked at Alvin Glenn for 36 years. In 1994, he became the assistant director of the 800-inmate jail, which takes prisoners from five city jails in Richland County. He was promoted to director in 2004.
So Myers was in charge in February 2013, when guard Robin Smith, an 18-year veteran, kicked Sweeper in the head and ribcage over and over, attorney Richard Harpootlian said in a lawsuit against the county. He also stood on Sweeper’s neck while jerking his arms up.
The “savage” beating broke three of Sweeper’s ribs and two vertebrae in his spine, while collapsing one of his lungs, his lawyer said.
Four days earlier, Sweeper had been trying to escape the cold when he was arrested for trespassing at the University of South Carolina, Harpootlian said in the lawsuit.
Sweeper was suffering from a psychotic break and behaving wildly when he was brought to Alvin Glenn, Harpootlian added. He was “disoriented, incoherent and in need of immediate help.”
When the inmate didn’t listen to instructions during a search of his cell, an assistant U.S. attorney told The State newspaper at the time, Smith lost his temper.
Federal prosecutors charged the guard with violating Sweeper’s civil rights. Smith was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay Sweeper $27,800 in restitution. Six other guards were fired for not reporting the beating.
Sweeper was restrained afterward, and he wasn’t taken to a hospital until four days later, Harpootlian said in a lawsuit against the medical contractor. He was finally diagnosed with a host of ailments, including dehydration, septic shock, broken ribs, a broken spine, acute renal failure and brain damage.
Sweeper and his family members sued Richland County and Correct Care Solutions, which also provides medical services to four out of six jails in South Hampton Roads, including the Regional Jail. Richland officials paid $750,000, and CCS doled out $600,000 to settle the suits, according to The State.
In 2014, the county commissioned Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates, a New York-based criminal justice consulting firm, for a report on how to make the jail better.
Among its findings were several systemic problems: not enough guards dealing with too many mentally ill inmates, poor housing, structural disorganization and overall mismanagement that caused ineffective supervision of inmates, according to a Columbia TV station article.
Myers said he didn’t have a copy of the report, and Richland County officials hadn’t fulfilled a request for one by Wednesday morning. Pulitzer/Bogard declined to give The Pilot a copy.
Myers and the 15 Regional Jail board members never talked about the scandal during a 4½-hour meeting last week that ended with the unanimous vote to hire him, according to Myers and four board members.
After being told about Sweeper’s beating, board Chair and Hampton City Councilwoman Chris Snead said Myers was the best candidate they interviewed, and she wasn’t concerned about what happened at Alvin Glenn. Others were fired and, if Myers did something wrong, he would’ve been fired, too, she said.
Snead added that the board’s personnel subcommittee thoroughly researched and questioned the candidates, and none of the members told the full board about the beating.
Alan Archer, assistant Newport News city manager and chair of the subcommittee, said he’s pretty sure it came up on Feb. 3, when Myers and two other semifinalists were interviewed, given a tour of the jail and subjected to a mock press conference. Or, he added, it might have been mentioned the morning of Feb. 15, before the full board met.
Archer said there was no particular reason he and other subcommittee members failed to bring it up with the board.
Regardless, Archer said, he was impressed with how Myers learned from the beating and endured the resulting firestorm.
Myers told subcommittee members how he made Alvin Glenn more transparent afterward, Archer said. He also enlisted the help of mental health groups to make things better for inmates.
“He used that as an opportunity,” Archer said. “He learned from the experience.”
In his new job, he’ll be getting some more lessons from the Department of Justice.
In April 2015, Mitchell, who had a history of mental health problems, was arrested and accused of stealing about $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store in Portsmouth. He died about three months later, alone in a Regional Jail cell with feces on the walls and urine on the floor.
Attorney General Mark Herring called for an independent investigation following the August death of Stewart, a 60-year-old who was locked up for violating his probation on a shoplifting charge. His repeated requests for medical help were denied, according to a man incarcerated there at the time and a jail document provided by Stewart’s family.
The DOJ announced in December that it would examine potential violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which is intended to protect people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in correctional facilities, nursing homes and mental health facilities.
“We will also offer to provide recommendations on ways to improve conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, when appropriate,” reads a letter to the jail.
Jonathan Edwards, 757-446-2536, firstname.lastname@example.org