Editorial: Richland County right to settle jail suit

07/27/2014 12:00 AM

07/25/2014 4:34 PM

RICHLAND County’s decision to settle a lawsuit over the brutal beating of a homeless mentally ill inmate at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center was not only the right and wise move, but it was surprisingly refreshing.

It’s a rarity that government officials acknowledge a clear wrong, often choosing to fight a losing legal battle to the end, wasting taxpayer dollars and destroying good will along the way. We commend Richland officials for refusing to drag this matter out in court, instead agreeing to a $750,000 settlement.

While that amount is well above the $300,000 cap the county would have had to pay if it lost in state court, it’s unknown how much a protracted fight could have cost in legal fees.

County Councilman Seth Rose, chairman of a council committee studying ways to improve the jail, said the county also feared that if the lawsuit were moved to federal court, Richland might be exposed to a jury award in the millions of dollars. Since the county is self-insured, it would have had to pay any federal jury verdict with tax dollars. County Council recently voted to make the $750,000 payout to Robert Sweeper III out of the general fund.

Given the reprehensible nature of the attack, the county had a moral obligation to acknowledge the wrong the inmate had suffered.

The facts speak for themselves: Mr. Sweeper suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs and broken vertebrae in the February 2012 incident at the Richland jail. Five days passed before medics were called to take Mr. Sweeper — by then clinging to life — to a hospital emergency room. Deputies only learned of the assault 10 days after the fact, and that was not from jail officials but through a report filed by staff at Palmetto Health Richland hospital. Ultimately, one guard was sentenced to prison in the tragic beating, and six others were fired.

We can only hope that something good comes out of this “indefensible act,” as Councilman Rose called it. One thing it did do is compel county officials to put renewed focus on the jail operations. Council members and staff have been working the past couple of years to find ways to address issues surrounding guards, the needs of mentally ill inmates and other matters.

Of course, given the jail’s sometimes rocky history, it shouldn’t have taken yet another appalling incident to get officials’ attention. The Sweeper beating came on top of a string of inmate deaths between 2009 and 2012 — at least five, according to news reports. That wasn’t the first such stretch. From 2000 to 2006, seven inmates died under questionable circumstances.

Need we say more?

Now that Richland County officials are engaged and working to improve the detention center, they must not let up.

It’s difficult enough to run a jail under the best of circumstances. But it’s particularly problematic when those charged with ensuring that inmates are properly secured and cared for and that guards and the public are protected lose interest or fail to provide oversight. That’s when things can fall apart and become deadly and costly.

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