The four state prison inmates strangled last week were killed by their fellow inmates likely because they were nuisances to other prisoners, sources have told The State newspaper.
The strangulations of Jimmy Ham, 56, Jason Kelley, 35, John King, 52, and Williams Scruggs, 44, were motivated at least in part by what in prison parlance is called “nuisance killings,” according to sources familiar with the deaths. Two fellow prisoners at Kirkland Correctional Institution, already serving life sentences for multiple murders, have been charged.
Bryan Stirling, agency director, said he could not comment on a motive, citing the pending criminal investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division.
Experts say little things matter in the highly structured and confined world of prison. Inmates, especially those serving long sentences, can become particularly irritated by other prisoners who invade their space or whose behavior nags them into hostility.
The four killed were excessively annoying to others, sources close to the investigation told the newspaper.
Having a mental illness outside of a prison setting is already difficult, said Mandy Medlock, the executive director of Justice 360, a Columbia-based organization that advocates for a fair criminal justice system for capital defendants.
“The stress (prison) places on a person with a normally functioning brain is a lot,” Medlock said Wednesday. “But then you put someone in that situation under the stressful conditions of a prison setting, whose brain is not equipped to deal with stress properly, it just makes it just more difficult for them.”
Those with mental illnesses have different sleep habits, she said. They can be sensitive to noise or light, and have medical needs that must be attended to. They also might not have the ability or the coping mechanism that those without mental illness possess to face a prison environment.
SLED’s warrants say that Jacob Theophilus Philip, 25, and Denver Jordan Simmons, 35, have confessed to the strangulations. But the motive has remained undisclosed by investigators.
All six inmates were housed in a dorm for inmates who receive treatment for mental disabilities, sources have told the newspaper. They were held together even though the assailants’ criminal histories showed more violent tendencies, overall, than the four inmates killed.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts has ruled they were suffocated in a cell at the Harbison area prison. Sources have told the newspaper all the men were strangled one at a time with an electrical cord twisted tight by a broomstick.
Video images depict three inmates going into a cell and two emerging on four occasions starting at 10 a.m. Friday, sources have said. They were lured one-by- one into the cell. The warrants do not indicate how they were lured.
Autopsy findings indicate King was the first to die, Watts said Wednesday. King was followed by Scruggs, Ham and Kelley – in that order, the coroner said. They all were dead by 10:30 a.m.
Philip and Simmons have been charged with four counts of murder by SLED. Agents continue to investigate the killings, which constitute the state’s highest toll in prison history of violent deaths at the hands of, authorities say, fellow inmates.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Chesterfield, and Georgetown attorney Carter Elliott have been hired by the family of Ham, who was scheduled to be released in November.
“The reality is that this incident shines a bright light on just how bad it is to be a mentally ill inmate in the SCDC (South Carolina Department of Corrections) system,” Elliott said in a statement. “These mean were lured to their deaths in a unit not being properly monitored.”
Elliott cited a 2014 circuit court decision that found the agency’s treatment of mentally ill inmates to be unconstitutional.
“Unfortunately, even after the agreement entered by SCDC in 2016 to improve mental health services and the training of correctional officers, it appears the situation at SCDC may be worse,” Elliott said.
Stuart Andrews represented the advocacy group that sued and hashed out the agreement Elliot cited. Andrews said Tuesday, “We believe the director (Stirling) is fully committed, and his senior staff, to hitting those targets that are laid out in the settlement.”
Still, Andrews said the agency has a “long way to go before achieving full compliance with the settlement agreement.”
The four dead prisoners were serving time for violent offenses, but only Scruggs was convicted in a homicide.
There were seven agency staffers in the dorm at the time of the killings, in addition to two correctional officers, said Sommer Sharpe, spokeswoman for the corrections department. The dorm, which is divided into two wings, has one officer per wing at any given time.
Sharpe also said there were 139 inmates in the dorm Friday. The number of inmates is roughly split in half per wing. That would mean one officer could have been overseeing 70 inmates.
None of the men – including the alleged killers – had disciplinary actions on file for violent incidents while incarcerated.