Crime & Courts

Former jail guard sentenced to 2 years in beating of homeless Columbia man

The decision to kick a jail inmate was costly for a former Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center guard.

It cost Robin Smith, the former jail guard with 18 years of experience in security and law enforcement, his freedom.

It cost former inmate Robert Sweeper III his health.

It cost Smith’s family heartache and financial loss.

And it potentially could cost taxpayers thousands of dollars to defend a lawsuit filed against Richland County, which oversees the jail.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson sentenced Smith to two years in a federal prison and ordered him to pay more than $27,800 in restitution for the February 2013 beating of Sweeper, a mentally ill man who was in jail on a trespassing charge. The punishment was reached as part of a plea agreement between Smith and federal prosecutors who had charged him with violating the inmate’s civil rights.

During emotional testimony that had his family in tears, Smith apologized to Sweeper, both families and his former co-workers at the detention center.

Smith, 38, said his actions were spontaneous, and he held no ill will toward Sweeper when he assaulted him in a cell.

“I’ve learned that one decision can erase everything you’ve spent your whole life building,” Smith said, pausing to cry. “It has affected my whole family.”

Sweeper had been arrested over a weekend on a trespassing charge after he was found sleeping in a doorway on the University of South Carolina campus.

At 6:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 11, Smith and other detention center guards were conducting a shakedown of cells that housed mentally ill inmates and those on suicide watch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said after the hearing. The point of the shakedown, Drake said, is to search for weapons or tools that inmates could use to harm themselves.

Guards perform the shakedowns between each shift change.

“In rapid fire, they are to inspect the cells of all of these mentally ill people,” Drake said.

Smith violated the detention center’s policy by entering Sweeper’s cell alone instead of with a team of guards, Drake said. Sweeper, who was unresponsive and could not follow directions, did not do what Smith asked of him during the inspection.

“Smith lost his temper, and when you are a correctional officer you can’t do that, and the system will not tolerate it,” she said.

Smith kicked Sweeper multiple times in the upper body and twisted his wrist and arm.

But no one reported the assault, and Sweeper stayed in his cell for five days before he finally was taken to the hospital. There, doctors called the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to investigate because Sweeper was near death, according to past reports and testimony.

During the hearing, Johnson told the judge that while his client assaulted the inmate, there was no medical evidence to prove that those blows were the direct cause of all of Sweeper’s injuries and illnesses.

When Anderson asked Johnson if he disagreed with reports that Sweeper suffered a collapsed lung, two broken ribs and broken vertebrae, Johnson said he wasn’t disputing those injuries.

After the beating, no one at the jail sought medical help for Sweeper, Drake said. He stayed in his cell without eating or drinking, and he performed some self-injury during a five-day gap between the beating and the hospitalization. If the case had gone to trial, both sides would have hired medical experts to support their cases.

Still, there was no law enforcement purpose for Smith’s actions, Drake said.

A pending civil suit over the beating will sort out answers as to whose actions caused Sweeper to nearly die before he was hospitalized, Drake said.

Sweeper did not attend the hearing because of ongoing physical and mental problems, Drake said.

His attorney, Dick Harpootlian, has sued the county on Sweeper’s behalf, and has asked the courts to force the county to pay Sweeper’s medical bills.

Drake told Anderson she was reluctant to say too much about the injuries because of the civil suit.

After the hearing, Drake said Smith’s actions were the only ones that merited criminal charges.

While Smith has been sentenced, the fallout is ongoing.

Six other guards were fired for keeping silent about what they knew of Sweeper’s beating. No one sought medical treatment for Sweeper even though he was in a unit where inmates were supposed to be monitored for physical and mental issues, jail officials have said.

The brutality also brought attention to the treatment of homeless and mentally ill in Columbia and led to an investigation into operations at Alvin S. Glenn.

Richland County formed a study committee that is paying $100,000 for an audit of the jail by a consultant. The study has not been completed.