The Justice Department on Thursday opened a far-reaching civil rights investigation of two troubled jails in South Carolina after reports of violent and unhealthy living conditions, failure to treat mentally ill prisoners and the abuse of inmates by guards.
The department initiated a so-called pattern or practice investigation into the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center near Charleston and the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia after the deaths of 14 inmates over the past several years, Kristen M. Clarke, the assistant attorney general who oversees the civil rights division, told reporters.
The investigation will focus on “credible allegations” that a number of those deaths resulted from use of force — including a stun gun and pepper spray on an inmate — medical neglect and assaults by other inmates that might have been prevented by competent supervision. The department has also received numerous reports of unsanitary and structurally unsound facilities, sexual assaults, overcrowding and short staffing.
“People confined in local jails across our country do not abandon their civil and constitutional rights at the jailhouse door,” Ms. Clarke said. “Incarceration should never carry with it a risk of death or serious harm.”
In an emailed statement, Sheriff Kristin Graziano of Charleston County, who oversees the Cannon facility, said that criticism of the jail was “politically opportunistic.” Ms. Graziano, a Democrat elected in 2020 on a reform platform, accused officials in state government of failing to provide enough resources to deal with mental illness, which she said had led to “the dumping of the mentally ill in jails.”
At a news conference, officials in Richland County, which oversees the facility in Columbia, acknowledged the need to address conditions and said they had already begun making changes, including increasing staffing at the jail.
The department uses pattern or practice investigations to determine whether law enforcement agencies are violating people’s constitutional rights. The inquiries, which can take months or years, often culminate in an agreement between the government and local officials to undertake a series of reforms. In some instances, the department will file a lawsuit if a deal cannot be reached.
The department’s use of such investigations has increased under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who opened investigations in Louisville, Ky.; Minneapolis; New York; Oklahoma City; Mount Vernon, NY; Phoenix, Worcester, Mass.; and Louisiana. In July, the department launched an investigation into conditions at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta, citing similar problems as those encountered in South Carolina.
Ms. Clarke said the department’s work in South Carolina would be fast-tracked because “life may be at stake” if problems persist.
Officials painted a particularly bleak picture of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, about eight miles from the State Capitol in Columbia.
They pointed to one fatality in particular that represented the dysfunction at the jail. In August 2022, D’Angelo Brown, 28, died from severe dehydration after jail officials failed to provide him with adequate medication and treatment for his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to a lawsuit filed by his family.
Mr. Brown suffered a psychotic break, refusing meals and liquids, and died a week after being rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency treatment.
“The county coroner has attributed Mr. Brown’s death to gross medical neglect and ruled his death a homicide,” Ms. Clarke said.
Since February 2022, there have been six deaths at the detention center, including that of Mr. Brown and another man who was killed by other prisoners. There have also been two escapes and 16 confirmed reports of stabbings or other acts of violence and multiple sexual assaults, according to the department’s initial assessment.
Ms. Clarke said she had also received reports that, in some instances, “the bodies of the deceased were not found for significant periods of time.”
The government also cited the poor physical state of the Glenn complex, which houses more than 900 prisoners. State inspectors and a local fire marshal have reported finding mold and vermin, she said.
A major catalyst for the investigation at the Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County, officials said, was the death of Jamal Sutherland, 31, who died after being forcibly extracted from his cell in January 2021.
Mr. Sutherland, who had a history of mental health problems, was taken to jail after an incident at a behavioral health center where he was being treated. Two sheriff’s deputies pepper-sprayed Mr. Sutherland and used a stun gun to subdue him.
They were later fired, but the Justice Department determined that there was insufficient evidence to bring civil rights charges against them.