US Justice Department to probe conditions at South Carolina jails

FILE PHOTO: Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke

By Andrew Goudsward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday initiated civil rights investigations into two local South Carolina jails, including one facility where a man died after being tased and pepper sprayed in his cell, a top department official said.

The probe will examine whether there are systemic civil rights violations at the two jails and focus on issues such as access to medical and mental healthcare, use of force by jail staff and whether incarcerated people are protected from violence, said Kristen Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“People confined in local jails across our country do not abandon their civil and constitutional rights at the jailhouse door,” Clarke said during a virtual press conference.

Local officials overseeing both jails said they welcomed the investigations and have been working to improve conditions in both facilities.

The investigation comes after the high-profile death of an inmate at one of the jails under investigation, the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2021.

Jamal Sutherland died after jail staff repeatedly tased and pepper sprayed him when he refused to leave his cell to attend a bond hearing.

The death of Sutherland, who was Black and reportedly said “I can’t breathe” during the encounter, drew comparisons to the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Justice Department said last year it would not bring charges against two former officers involved in Sutherland's death.

Clarke said on Thursday that there have been eight deaths in the same jail since 2022, including a man who died after being denied access to prescribed psychiatric medications.

Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano, whose office oversees the jail, said in a statement the facility was going “above and beyond our call of duty to provide assistance on mental health concerns.”

The other jail under investigation, the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia, South Carolina, has seen at least six inmate deaths since February 2022.

Clarke said local officials in South Carolina have pledged to cooperate with the investigations. If the probes reveal a pattern of constitutional violations, Clarke said the Justice Department would negotiate with jail officials on proposed reforms.

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; editing by Jonathan Oatis)