Thorough review needed following deaths at jail

TWO RECENT DEATHS at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center demand a thorough review by Richland County of the circumstances that surrounded them as well its policies. But that's just the start: The county also has an obligation to give the public a clear explanation of how these deaths occurred and what if anything the county could or should have done to prevent them.

It's imperative to give families a full understanding of what happened to their deceased loved ones and to reassure the public that the jail is operating properly.

It's a tragedy when even one person dies in government custody. But last month, two inmates died just days apart in the Richland County detention center. Angela Meitzner, who had been booked on fraudulent checks and forgery charges, was found hanging by the neck in a cell. Days earlier, Olin Taylor, who had been arrested for driving under the influence and assault and battery with intent to kill, was found dead in his cell, hanging from a cord made with his shoelaces. Both deaths tentatively have been ruled as suicides.

Running a jail is difficult. There are unfortunate accidents, even deaths, at even the best-run ones. But once an inmate ends up in jail, for whatever reason, it becomes the obligation of the county to ensure his safety. Although they have been charged with crimes, most local jail inmates have not been convicted; they should expect to survive government's custody.

There needs to be a review anytime someone dies in custody, to ensure that the system didn't fail that person. That's doubly so in Richland County, which went through an unfortunate stretch - from 2000 to 2006 - when seven inmates died under questionable circumstances. During that period, one mentally ill inmate died of complications from hypothermia and two others hanged themselves; another, not known to have a history of mental illness, also hanged himself. The families of the three mentally ill inmates sued Prison Health Services, which at the time was providing medical services at the jail. The county fired Prison Health Services and hired Tennessee-based Correct Care Solutions to provide medical and mental health services at the jail.

Over the years, the county has worked to reclaim public confidence in the operation of the jail. That's all the more reason for officials to thoroughly review these most recent incidents and give a clear public accounting of what happened. If this is a situation where two tragic deaths just happened to occur around the same time despite the county's best efforts - which is not improbable - the public needs to know that. If there were miscues on the county's part, the public needs to know that as well - along with what action the county intends to take to bring correction and improvement.

Ultimately, it's the duty of Richland County officials to demonstrate their ability to responsibly operate a safe jail in the best interest of the public. That demands open, honest communication, whether the news is good or bad.