Four prisoners slain last April in an execution-style killing died because of horrible under-staffing and poor mental health care at a high-security S.C. prison, according to lawsuits filed Tuesday by relatives of two of the inmates.
“It was just a powder keg, a place where they had some of the worst of the worst,” said Carter Elliott, the Georgetown attorney who filed the lawsuits along with attorneys John O’Leary of Columbia and Gerald Malloy of Darlington, a Democratic state senator.
The lawsuits — filed by relatives of two of the four slain prisoners, Jason Kelley and Jimmy Lee Hamm — allege numerous instances of “gross negligence” by prison officials that made conditions ripe for one of the most violent incidents in S.C. prison history.
During a three-hour period after breakfast on April 7, two inmates incarcerated for murder – Denver Simmons and Jacob Philip – lured four of their fellow inmates into a prison cell and, then, strangled them with a broom handle and stomped on their bodies, breaking bones, the lawsuits say.
The lawsuits highlight anew ongoing issues of rising violence, chronic under-staffing and inadequate mental health care in S.C. prisons, which house roughly 20,000 inmates, most incarcerated for violent crimes.
Earlier this month, The State newspaper reported that 12 inmates were slain in South Carolina’s 21 prisons in 2017, double the number of killings in 2016 and four times the number in 2015.
Assaults on prison staffers also have increased.
Prison officials had no comment Tuesday on the lawsuits, filed in state court in Richland County. They said they had not received copies of the suits and, in any case, don’t comment on pending litigation.
Among the allegations:
▪ Prison officials should have known the two alleged killers, Simmons and Philip, were bent on murder because they had told prison staffers. Both men, serving life sentences for multiple murders, “had voiced on several occasions” to prison security and medical staff “their intentions to kill other inmates so they could receive the death penalty,” the suits say.
▪ Instead of being locked up, Simmons and Philip were given “wardkeeper status,” allowing them freedom of movement and access to mops and brooms, tools they used in two of the killings. An extension cord was used in two other killings, the lawsuits say. “All the victims were stabbed, stepped on and their throats were crushed with a broomstick,” the lawsuits say.
▪ One inmate was lured to his death with the promise of getting to eat cookies if he entered Simmons’ cell.
▪ Guards didn’t discover the killings, which took place over three hours, until told about them by the two suspects. “After the murders were completed, Mr. Philip and Mr. Simmons eventually walked up to the operations desk where Mr. Simmons told staff to ‘check my room,’ ” the suits say.
▪ Although the unit the killings took place was for mentally ill prisoners, the mental health care given inmates was negligently substandard, the lawsuits say.
Inmates are not the most sympathetic people in the world, attorney Elliott said Tuesday. But, he added, “We all could have family members, or people we know, who are incarcerated. They deserve humane treatment, and the prisons have a duty to provide that.”
South Carolina’s prison system is understaffed, officials have acknowledged.
In recent years, prison officials have worked to get more money to increase the pay of prison guards and other staffers to make hiring more prison workers easier. But the prison system still has 652 vacancies for front-line correctional officers.
Simmons and Philip subsequently confessed to the killings, adding their motive was to get the death penalty, the lawsuits allege. The 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office has made no decision on whether to seek the death penalty at their trials.