Crime & Courts

Dead SC inmates were in unit for mentally ill prisoners

(From the left) John Tely King, Jason Howard Kelley, Jimmy Ham and William Bradley Scruggs were found dead inside a dorm at Kirland Correctional Institution.
(From the left) John Tely King, Jason Howard Kelley, Jimmy Ham and William Bradley Scruggs were found dead inside a dorm at Kirland Correctional Institution. Columbia

The four state inmates and two fellow convicts charged with killing them were serving time in a unit that treats prisoners with a wide range of mental illnesses and criminal histories.

The S.C. Department of Corrections declined Tuesday to confirm if the inmates, housed in one of the state’s most high-security prisons, were receiving mental health treatment, citing federal medical privacy laws.

But sources told The State newspaper the six inmates were being held at a dorm that’s home to one of Kirkland Correctional Institution’s acute mental health facilities.

Inmates in such units, called Intermediate Care Services, are one step below being hospitalized for mental illness. But those units are too expensive to have at each of the state’s more than 20 prisons. That forces inmates with a variety of mental challenges to be housed with some prisoners convicted of extremely violent crimes.

Those kinds of units like the ones at the prison in Columbia’s Harbison area are not unusual across the nation, said Stuart Andrews, an attorney who represented an advocacy group that sued the corrections agency for its poor treatment of the mentally ill.

Experts believe that by concentrating mental health services at a particular location, inmates get access to more psychiatrists and more mental health professionals who can provide the higher level of care prisoners need, Andrews said.

“It does introduce an additional risk factor,” he said.

That additional risk led to the strangulations Friday of Jimmy Ham, 56, Jason Kelley, 35, John King, 52, and William Scruggs, 44, state investigators said. They have charged Jacob Theophilus Philip, 25, and Denver Jordan Simmons, 35, each of whom is serving life sentences for multiple murders. Each killed a woman and her child.

Sources have told the newspaper they were choked in the same cell with an electrical cord that was tightened with a broomstick. 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.

The deaths raised concerns among members of the state Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, a panel that approves legislative proposals for the state’s law enforcement agencies.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said she worries prisoners who have mental issues are not segregated sufficiently, because the state doesn’t have enough places to house them.

“They keep all of them – developmentally disabled – in the same area,” Shealy said of Friday’s killings, the worst in the state prison system’s history. “We had the wrong kind of people together.”

Shealy said the issue of treating the mentally ill extends beyond state prisons, adding the state has to start figuring out what to do with the mentally ill instead of just stockpiling them in prisons.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, wondered why mentally challenged inmates did not have more supervision than the average inmate population.

“It’s unbelievable that this act could be carried out in a secure prison facility,” Kimpson said Tuesday. “It raises serious questions with respect to our monitoring of inmates.”

As part of a 2016 settlement agreement on the lawsuit brought by Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, the state agreed to spend about $1.7 million to upgrade the corrections department’s mental health units and to hire about 70 additional mental health staffers.

Andrews, the lawyer representing Protection and Advocacy, said the organization recognized that the Corrections Department could not change the culture, policies and staffing levels overnight.

“The department has a long way to go before it will achieve full compliance with the settlement agreement,” Andrews said.

Philip and Simmons outsized or outweighed the prisoners they are accused of killing. Philip is 6-foot-1 and weighs 254 pounds, according to prison records. Simmons is 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds.

Of the four men killed, only Ham comes close to either suspect in size or bulk. Ham weighed 178 pounds and was 5-foot-11. But he also was more than 20 years older than Simmons and Philip. Scruggs and King weighed less than 140 pounds. The youngest killed, Kelley, weighed 162 pounds.

None of the men – including the alleged killers – had disciplinary actions on file for violent incidents while incarcerated. Ham had the longest list of violations, all in 2009, for refusing to obey orders and possessing contraband.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC