Richland officials to focus on jail guards, mental health

03/21/2013 7:42 PM

03/21/2013 11:56 PM

Richland County officials on a special jail review committee appeared poised Thursday to concentrate on two key areas – raising detention officer pay to attract a higher caliber guard and focusing on the management of the large number of inmates with mental health issues..

The committee, led by Richland County Council member Seth Rose, was formed in the wake of February’s beating of an inmate who officials said had mental health issues. A guard has been fired and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in the incident. Six other detention officers have been put on administrative leave without pay and recommended for termination. They knew about but did not report the incident, officials have said.

The inmate beaten by a guard lay uncared for in his cell for several days in a special unit for mentally ill and violent detainees before anyone thought to send him to the hospital. At the hospital, he was put in an intensive care unit, suffering from a punctured lung, broken ribs and internal injuries.

“He was an individual in on a trespassing charge, and he probably should have been at the Department of Mental Health,” Rose said while on a committee tour of the jail Thursday. “But because of cuts to the state mental health budget, he was in here. He should not have been in here.”

On a per inmate basis, the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center sees more mentally ill prisoners than just about any other large S.C. county jail, jail officials said Thursday. Some 180 inmates of Wednesday’s 830 inmates are on psychiatric medications, officials offered as an example.

Alvin S. Glenn has some 800 inmates daily and has about 250 inmates seeing mental health professionals each month. Charleston, with a daily population of 1,400, has about 260 inmates seeing professionals each month. Lexington, with an average daily population of 700, has 155.

County Council member Greg Pearce said he would like to see more extensive training on how to deal with mentally troubled inmates who become aggressive.

“If you are going to have high numbers of mentally ill people here, we need to teach staff,” Pearce said.

Pearce, who for years was a psychologist at the S.C. State Hospital for the mentally ill and also former director of the Crafts-Farrow State Hospital, said sophisticated training is needed to defuse or restrain inmates who become aggressive.

It’s a far different matter than dealing with, say, a combative criminal gang member “who just wants to get in your face,” Pearce said.

In the current case, former detention officer Robin Smith is accused of repeatedly kicking a 52-year-old homeless man in the head and side while in his cell on Feb. 11. University of South Carolina police had arrested the man for trespassing after they found him sleeping in the doorway of a classroom building on campus.

Rose said he wants the committee to examine detention officers’ salaries. Noting that starting officers are paid some $25,745 per year – or $8,000 less than Lexington County detention officers, who make $33,900 – he said, “If you want to recruit the best and the brightest, so we don’t have incidents like the ones that have been occurring, we need to be more competitive. That is something we’re going to be getting recommendations on.”

Jail director Ronaldo Myers, 56, said that overall his agency performs very well and the February incident was an aberration.

“We just had a few people who didn’t do the right thing,” Myers said. “Did we fail? Yes, we failed. Is it our normal standard of practice? It is not.”

Thursday was the special county committee’s first meeting. In addition to the tour, which took committee members into units that house violent and mentally ill suspects, committee members were given a broad overview of jail operations on all kinds of topics.

Among the statistics they heard: Last year, detention officers had 1,900 suicide threats, or five a day. Of those, 40 inmates attempted suicide. One succeeded.

Other officials at Thursday’s meeting were: County Council chairman Kelvin Washington, county administrator Tony McDonald, assistant county administrator Sparty Hammett, council members Norman Jackson and Torrey Rush, and John Brown of the Columbia Area Mental Health Center and 5th Circuit assistant solicitor William Bilton.

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