A clinical counselor turned whistleblower who worked with mentally ill prisoners at Kirkland Correctional Institution has sued the agency, saying it failed to live up to a state judge’s order to improve treatment.
Sandra Johnson’s assignment as a social worker included the unit where authorities say four inmates were strangled this month by two fellow inmates. Only now-deceased inmate William Scruggs was not in that unit when Johnson, 55, said she worked there.
The unit is where inmates with mental problems are treated if they are deemed not ill enough to be moved to Kirkland’s psychiatric hospital.
Johnson, in an interview Monday, said that “absolutely” those prisoners died because the S.C. Department of Corrections failed to provide sufficient treatment.
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“There are some people that should feel guilty since as far as I’m concerned, SCDC has blood on its hands,” Johnson said. “I want to get the truth out there so more people don’t die.”
Corrections spokesman Dexter Lee declined to respond, citing the agency’s policy of not commenting on lawsuits. Lee also said the agency has not seen the suit.
Inmates Scruggs, 44, Jimmy Ham, 56, Jason Kelley, 35, and John King, 52, were choked one by one in the same cell with an electrical cord tightened by a broomstick, sources have told The State newspaper. Jacob Philip, 25, and Denver Simmons, 35, each are charged with four counts of murder. They already were serving life sentences in separate killings of women and their children.
All six of them were assigned to the Intermediate Care Services unit, known as F2, in Kirkland at the time of the killings, sources have said.
Johnson said more inmates have died because of improper treatment, but would not elaborate. “There have been more deaths than you know,” she said, “but that will come out in the (lawsuit) trial.”
In the suit, filed Thursday, and in Monday’s interview, Johnson alleges a pattern of behavior by agency personnel that does not meet court-approved treatment standards for inmates with mental issues. Her suit contends she was fired in retaliation for calling attention to agency problems.
“There aren’t words to describe how emotionally devastating this is,” she said. “I warned people – everybody up the chain of command, including director (Bryan) Stirling.”
She said she never met directly with Stirling but had face-to-face conversations with deputy director Lefford Fate, documented the infractions, reported what inmates told her and witnessed some of the problems first hand. Johnson believes Stirling was informed.
Johnson recalled one incident last June when an inmate with a two-year history of cutting himself and swallowing razor blades was left bleeding onto the floor of his cell in the mental health unit. He had cuts on his right arm and his left arm was bandaged from earlier cuts. The prisoner was there for at least 15 hours before medical help was summoned, Johnson said. As he waited for medical treatment, the prisoner swallowed the razor he was holding, she said.
“‘I want to go somewhere I can get some help, where I can get some counseling,’” Johnson said the inmate told her.
A female corrections officer on duty in the unit told Johnson that no one could go into the cell because the razor was a weapon that put their safety at risk, Johnson said.
About 48 hours passed before the inmate was taken to a Columbia-area hospital, she said.
Mentally ill inmates also were put into a crisis intervention unit and a lockdown unit where they were left in isolation and got little to no treatment, Johnson said.
Federal medical privacy laws prohibit most anyone from identifying people receiving medical treatment. Therefore, no inmates are named in the suit. Her suit does not ask for specified damages.
Johnson contends her firing after eight months on the job was because she had chronicled – almost from her hiring date in December 2015 – what she termed “abuse and neglect” of prisoners, including by an unlicensed counselor. That counselor harassed and cursed a seriously mentally ill inmate, the suit alleges.
Johnson sued the Corrections Department in Richland County circuit court, alleging the agency had damaged her professional reputation after 28 years as a licensed counselor, which she said included no disciplinary actions by the state’s regulatory board. She claims in the suit that she was targeted within two weeks after she took her complaints to an advocacy group for the mentally ill.
Prison officials singled out Johnson, still a probationary employee, as soon as her first report was filed on Feb. 22, 2016, her suit states. “She was then subjected to an improper (disciplinary) write-up that was later rescinded,” according to the suit.
Johnson said things got worse once she contacted Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc. to report that conditions for mentally ill inmates had worsened despite an agreement reached between PANDA and the corrections department. The settlement followed years of litigation dating to when the advocacy group sued in 2005. State Judge Michael Baxley sided with PANDA, and in January 2014 issued a scathing order telling the agency to correct its mistreatment of the mentally ill.
Baxley, now retired and a private citizen, spoke on Friday for the first time with a reporter since he issued the order. He referred to Stirling as the “catalyst” of the changes the agency has made under his leadership.
Before Stirling was appointed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley to lead the prison system, Baxley said the agency’s response to the suit was one of “entrenchment.” But the new director replaced the litigation team and took immediate steps to begin to bring the department to the negotiating table, the former judge said.
If the agency had not made the decision to halt its appeals, the case likely still would be unresolved, Baxley said. “It could be litigated for throughout the rest of our lifetimes.
“That’s a tough and tall order to undertake,” Baxley said of changes within the agency. “It took probably took 20 years to get to the situation that I found. It takes time to get out of that.”
Staff writer Cynthia Roldán contributed.