Crime & Courts

Prison officials knew a voice told inmate to kill. He was left alone anyways, suit says

Breaking down South Carolina prison assaults and deaths

2017 statistics show that the amount of inmate murders has grown within South Carolina prisons, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections
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2017 statistics show that the amount of inmate murders has grown within South Carolina prisons, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections

A convict accused of killing four inmates at a Columbia-area prison in 2017 had tried to kill another prisoner years before after hearing voices telling him to, a new lawsuit claims.

The federal lawsuit accuses the state Department of Corrections of being partially responsible for the four deaths because officials didn’t separate the two men charged in the killings from other inmates. The department also didn’t adequately staff the ward where the men were killed, and officials gave the suspects access to cleaning supplies that were used as weapons.

Before the quadruple killings, the two accused inmates several times told the warden and other guards that they wanted to kill other prisoners so they could receive the death penalty, the claims says, which should have prompted officials to remove them from the prison population.

“Nothing was done,” the suit says.

The 2017 killings inside a state Department of Corrections high-security prison stunned the state and prompted a Senate panel to explore issues within the prison system. Richland County Coroner Garry Watts said the quadruple homicide in a prison was unprecedented in his career, and corrections department director Bryan Stirling called the alleged murders “not something we’ve seen before.”

Jacob Theophilus Philip, 26, and Denver Jordan Simmons, 36, were charged with four counts of murder after both confessed to the slayings, warrants showed. The victims were Jimmy Lee Ham, 56; John King, 52; Jason Kelley, 35, and William Scruggs, 44

Philip had a history of mental illness and auditory hallucinations that would tell him what to do, the suit alleges. Still, prison officials didn’t monitor him.

A trio of lawsuits were filed in federal court by families of the four dead inmates. The suits reveal details about the killing of four inmates, the suspects and the conditions the suit claims led to the deaths.

The state Department of Corrections said it wouldn’t comment on the litigation. But in a similar lawsuit filed in state court, the Department of Corrections denied all the allegations.

One lawsuit, filed by Ham’s family, says Philip and Simmons lured him to a cell with the promise of drugs on April 7, 2017. When they got him in the cell, Ham saw a dead body on the bed just before he was attacked. The suspects beat Ham, but he fought back and “tried to alert someone as to what was going on,” the lawsuit says.

The two stabbed Ham in the mouth with a broom handle and strangled him with an extension cord before putting him on the cell’s bed and concealing his body with a sheet, according to the complaint. Besides the body spotted by Ham, another body also was hidden in the cell before Ham was killed.

Ham was killed around 9:03 a.m. Only minutes later, a guard, Sgt. Dewaun McKan, conducted a security check of the cell block and failed to notice that any inmates were missing or to notice the dead bodies, the suit says.

McKan’s error or omission in noticing the bodies was one of the ways prison officials violated Ham’s constitutional rights to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and equal protection, according to the complaint.

“Deliberate Indifference”

A half hour after Ham’s killing, a fourth inmate met the same fate. Within minutes of each of the four slayings, McKan never noticed any missing inmates or bodies during his sweeps of the cell block, the suit says. Video evidence backs up the assertion that despite the security checks guards never notice anything awry, the suit says.

The cell block where Ham was housed was part of a two-wing unit that held 139 mentally ill inmates, court documents say.

Those inmates required “intensive treatment and/or monitoring,” according to the suit, and four guards were supposed to watch over the prisoners 24 hours a day. The cell block routinely had only one guard, the suit says. On the day of the killings, no guard was stationed in the cell block, according attorney C. Carter Elliott Jr., the attorney representing Ham’s family.

“Correctional staff are seldom located within the unit and then mentally ill inmates are largely left unsupervised throughout the day and night,” the complaint reads. “This is completely inappropriate considering this is a level 3 institution which houses the most violent inmate population and the inmates with the most severe mental health problems.”

An SCDC inmate stands in front of a cell inside a dorm at Kirkland Correctional Institution Thursday March 14, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre

In 2017, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said seven agency staffers and two correctional officers were in the dorm. Elliott contends that they may have been in the unit, but they weren’t in the wing where the suspects beat, choked and stomped the four men. The guard conducting the security checks passed through the cell block and left, Elliott said.

Prison officials, including warden Timothy Riley and his subordinates, knew the staffing shortage could lead to dangerous conditions that could put inmates at risk, the suit claims. The officials let the cell block go unguarded, leading, in part, to Ham’s death.

The block was also a “non-lockdown unit” where inmates were allowed to move freely during the day despite their mental illnesses, which required a highly structure environment, according to the suit. This privilege of the inmates played a part in Ham’s death, the suit claims.

The response of prison officials “was so inadequate as to show deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization of the offenses,” the suit says.

Sick and violent

Philip’s history should have convinced the warden and others that he shouldn’t have been unsupervised out of his cell, the lawsuit says.

When Philip was a child, his father attacked his mother with a knife while Philip watched, a psychological evaluation found. A police sniper killed his father while he stabbed the woman.

The evaluation also found that a day after Philip’s 8th birthday, his mother committed suicide.

In 2013, authorities in Berkeley County charged Philip with killing his 26-year-old girlfriend and her 8-year-old daughter. He pleaded guilty in exchange for life without parole, court records show.

prisoners charged in 4 killings
Accused killers, Denver Jordan Simmons, left, and Jacob Theophilus Philip

While jailed for that killing but before he pleaded guilty, Philip heard a voice tell him to kill another prisoner, which he tried to do, the suit says.

The psychological evaluation found that Philip suffered from schizoaffective disorder and was bipolar, which required antipsychotic medication. Auditory hallucinations told him to do things.

Simmons also suffered from severe mental health issues that required medication, according to the suit, which did not specify his conditions. He pleaded guilty in the 2007 Colleton County killings of 45-year-old Sheila Dodd and her 13-year-old son, receiving two life sentences, according to The Post and Courier.

Despite the two inmates’ violent pasts and their mental health issues, the warden and other prison leaders allowed Simmons and Philip to keep cleaning supplies, like mops and brooms, in their cells, and those supplies were eventually used in the killings. The two men also weren’t given the health care they needed, according to the court filing. All of this allowed them to kill Ham and the three others.

“What separates this case”

All three lawsuits against prison officials have requested a trial by jury and are seeking an unspecified monetary amount for the families’ emotional distress. The suits seek punitive damages as well.

“For this particular unit, for those folks with that level of mentally illness, to not have monitoring and protection in there, that’s what makes it worse,” Elliott said. “These are severely mentally ill patients. The fact that they got lax in protection and security...that’s what separates this case from others I’ve done.”

Staff shortages in South Carolina’s prison were called “a potential time bomb” by Stuart Andrews, an attorney who in 2016 represented an advocacy group that settled a suit to improve conditions in the state’s prison system for mentally ill inmates.

“It’s one that affects the safety of inmates, staff and, ultimately, the public,” Andrews said.

After a Senate panel hearing to discuss the April 2017 incident, Stirling, the corrections department director, said, “We clearly need more officers. ... We’re doing everything we can because of what we’ve seen.”

This year the Department of Corrections has 70 less corrections officers than last year, Stirling told The State.

The department requested an additional $6.2 million to address staffing issues from State House budget makers, a request the House rejected but that could still be granted by the Senate.

Emily Bohatch contributed to this story.

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.