Featured ReportingLatest NewsPrison Protest

South Carolina Prisoners Call For UN Intervention As Abusive Conditions Worsen

As most South Carolina prisoners started their day on October 23, activists attempted to deliver a demand letter to the United States Embassy in London. The letter condemned inhumane conditions in South Carolina’s prisons and called for international intervention.

Within a matter of hours, demands written by prisoners were delivered or read at three United Nations facilities and shared with visitors at the U.S. Embassy. Protesters almost 5,000 miles apart in the U.S., Caribbean, and the United Kingdom requested international humanitarian action on behalf of S.C. prisoners.

In addition to removing the metal plates the South Carolina Department of Corrections placed on the windows so prisoners could access natural light and open ventilation from the outside, the prisoners demanded SCDC meet international standards for vocational training and educational programming, outdoor recreation, healthy living conditions including lighting, heating and ventilation, clean drinking water, and a nutritious diet.

Activists said armed guards prevented them from entering the U.S. Embassy in London. Instead, they handed out flyers to people waiting in line to request visas and snapped a photo with a hashtag #Justice4SCPrisoners before leaving.

Hours later, the same petition was dropped off at the United Nations International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica by a member of the Left Alliance for National Democracy and Socialism (LANDS). The demands were read aloud at UN offices in Washington DC within minutes by the DC Abolition Coalition and the local chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

When New York City’s IWOC chapter attempted to deliver the demands to the U.N. offices in that city after 4 pm, U.N. security told them to put away the letter and refused to receive it, the activists said. IWOC members read the demands aloud and tried to unravel a banner for a photo, but security confiscated the banner and told organizers they could not take photos in the Visitor Center. Security then instructed organizers to “go downstairs to talk it out.”

IWOC members refused and left before security escalated the situation any further.

Demanding Fresh Air And Sunlight

The demand letter written by SCDC prisoners cites multiple areas where SCDC’s treatment of prisoners does not meet the international standards laid out in the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” which are the U.N.’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

A South Carolina prisoner with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, who is referred to in this article as “Al,” agreed to speak with Shadowproof under the condition of anonymity to prevent retaliation by corrections officials.

Al claims that SCDC has at least one unit on all of the medium and high security prisons, where prisoners have been denied regular movement for well over a year. Prisoners in these units have endured a form of lockdown.

“And they haven’t been moving since the national tragedy at Lee Correctional [Institute],” Al said, referring to a violent incident in 2018 that left seven prisoners dead and approximately two dozen injured.

Al described a process of intentional restriction of movement that has been developing for years.

“They cut these flaps, portholes in the door, to where they can feed you in and out, like solitary or something,” Al told Shadowproof.

“In some locations they’re even putting the cages up on the shower doors, so you won’t be able to walk in and out the shower. When they lock you down, and they do decide to give you a shower, they’ll be able to escort you like you’re on maximum security and lock you in the shower for five or ten minutes, and then handcuff you, bring you back out and escort you back to your cell. So all that is new.”

“There’s barely any [recreation] really going on outside of the special privilege unit and you know they got one of those on each one of these level 3 facilities,” Al added, ”so if there’s not a privilege unit, you’re not really seeing a whole lot of recreation.”

In November, Al claimed that he had received outdoor recreation only three times over a two month period, for only half an hour each time. He said the reason that he was given for receiving less than the standard hour was that the facility was “short of staff.”

With no one able to move, Al said, “you’re finding a lot of aggravation behind the doors, a lot of fights behind the doors, about a month ago we just had a cellmate killed in South Carolina.”

Al also echoed the demand letter’s concerns about the lack of quality food and water in the facilities. “I’m scared to eat out of the chow hall,” he said.

Shadowproof also interviewed “Tina,” the spouse of a prisoner who is part of an informal support group for prisoners and their families in South Carolina. Tina agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her visitation privileges.

“Taking away the sunlight reduces vitamin D. That not only causes clinical depression but [prisoners] get sick easier and it can also cause cancer!” Tina declared.

“The suicide rate is ridiculous, and it is sad that they feel that that is the only way out. But what else do you do when you are left to sit idle in the dark and can’t do anything but think?”

“I’ve seen mold and brown water. Food that looks like it was pulled from a dumpster after rotting for a while,” Tina shared. “Men trapped in smoke filled rooms while fire alarms are blaring without a CO in sight, a man severely wounded while CO’s just step over him instead of rendering aid.”

She also noted examples of prisoners in extreme pain who are denied medical attention and the egregious lack of dental care for prisoners with extremely painful dental issues. She said she spoke with people “with tooth pain so bad they want to rip [their teeth] out themselves and they can’t even get Tylenol while they wait to be seen by a dentist, which is extremely rare.”

Covering Windows With Metal Plates

When SCDC began placing the metal plates over the windows in 2017, prisoners recognized it as an unusual step. As the demand letter notes the plates violate the Mandela rules.

Within days of the action at the U.N., prisoners in South Carolina reported that a few inches were cut off the metal plates in some facilities.

After coverage in Common Dreams and Truthout, journalist Kelly Hayes contacted SCDC to inquire about the status of the metal plates on the windows. In an email to Hayes on November 7, Chrysti Shain, director of communications for SCDC, stated, “We are going through the process of removing those from all of our maximum-security facilities. We have finished some and others are ongoing. The process takes awhile [sic] to complete each institution.”

From his vantage point inside SCDC and from talking to prisoners in other facilities, Al learned some plates had small pieces removed, yet no metal plates were removed at any Level 3 (high security) facilities.

When Shadowproof shared SCDC’s statement with Al in November, he laughed at the department’s suggestion that the process “takes awhile.”

“They have prisoners that work in the maintenance department that actually put [the plates] up. All they gotta do is call down to the prison and say ‘remove them’ and the prisoners will go down and remove these plates from the windows. Because all that matters is the equipment. They had the equipment to put them up, they have the equipment to pull them down.”

“About the same time that statement was written,” Al added, “SCDC gave the directive at at least two or three locations to cut the plates down a little more lower.”

Shadowproof reached out to SCDC to follow-up on Chrysti Shain’s November claim that metal plates would be removed, and to request a response to Al’s description of SCDC leaving plates up with modifications. SCDC did not respond to our inquiries.

In discussing the Mandela rules around air and sunlight, Al noted that SCDC “used to have someone to come around and check the air and light quality in the cells. Well, they confiscated those devices from those particular personnel. They’re no longer allowed to come around and check for that anymore. And it makes perfect sense because if they get hit with a lawsuit then this information, this data, don’t need to be placed out there.”

In early December, not only had SCDC still not removed any metal plates from windows in Level 3 facilities, but according to AI, they started painting them a “rusty brown.”

Al was under the impression that SCDC thought “the silver was too obvious from the sky view. So now it blends in.”

He was not optimistic that officials, who are using prison labor to cut small strips off the metal plates and paint them brown, were preparing to remove them any time soon.

Years Of Escalating Crisis

SCDC prisoners have described their horrendous conditions for years and their persistence has only increased a sense of hopelessness and despair among incarcerated people.

Amid a water crisis at McCormick Correctional Institute in 2017, prisoners reported that metal plates were put over the windows.

After publishing a conversation with prisoners about this oppression on the Beyond Prisons podcast, one of the prisoners reached out to say prison officials played a recording of his voice to other prisoners, seeking to identify the whistleblower’s identity.

Beyond Prisons removed the recording in an effort to protect sources—an incident that was retold by Columbia Journalism Review during the 2018 prison strike.

The metal plates, which block sunlight and restrict outside air flow into prison cells, have become emblematic of the repressive nature of SCDC.

The conditions facing the majority of SCDC prisoners date all the way back to the violence at Lee in 2018 and mirror those endured by people placed in Restrictive Housing Units (RHU)—an extreme form of solitary confinement that represents some of the harshest conditions in SCDC.

In 2016—one year before the metal plates began appearing in SCDC cells—a judge ruled that the state’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners was, “inherently flawed and systemically deficient in all major areas.” The ruling to a massive court settlement around SCDC’s use of solitary confinement and treatment of mentally ill prisoners, with which monitors say the prison system has yet to substantially comply.

Mental Health Settlement Yet To Provide Relief From Harsh Conditions

A March 2019 report from the Implementation Panel (IP) for SCDC’s mental health settlement agreement focused on prisoners held in Broad River and Lee Correctional Institute’s RHU. It concluded the “IP is extremely concerned about the very serious deficiencies in mental health care specifically with regard to inmates who are housed in RHUs and the resultant very serious and continuing harm,” stemming from “systemic failures” of SCDC to implement recommendations designed to address deficiencies identified in the settlement agreement.

As has been described by other prisoners within SCDC, the report illustrates that most mentally ill prisoners lack recreation opportunities entirely, and prisoners go a week between showers.They also face prolonged isolation “for reasons that do not require RHU confinement for more than 60 days.” The UN defines solitary confinement as torture at fifteen days.

Despite the lengthy stays in the RHU, “the majority of inmates have not received out of cell recreation since their RHU placement,” according to the report.

The harmful results of SCDC’s policies is self-evident. The prison system had the highest suicide rate in state history in 2018.

Prisoners claim their conditions foster an environment of division and hopelessness, which culminated in the deadliest day in a quarter century of U.S. prison history at Lee Correctional Institute on April 15, 2018.

Eight hours of deadly negligence and violence that day led prisoners to reach out to other incarcerated people across the U.S. to launch a national prison strike. They issued ten demands via Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) focused on policy issues they believed would alleviate some of the most harmful aspects of prison conditions.

The prison strike stimulated national conversations and led to #Right2Vote pushes for prisoners, detainees, and formerly incarcerated people. The strike demands have also influenced presidential criminal justice reform platforms, particularly that of Senator Bernie Sanders, whose platform attempts to address at least six of the ten demands.

The most discussed strike demand was for an end to prison slavery. This is a particularly important issue in South Carolina, where 86 percent of prisoners not in solitary confinement are assigned to jobs and—except for 1,300 prisoners in the Prison Industries program—work for no pay at all.

Despite claiming that no S.C. prisoners participated in the 2018 prison strike, Director Bryan Stirling presented in a document to State Representative Edward Tallon that seemed to show otherwise.

Between June of 2018 and June of 2019, SCDC charged prisoners with disciplinary offenses for refusing or failing to work in their assigned positions 323 times, convicting them of these charges 164 times. In fact, over a three year period from 2016 through 2018, the state of South Carolina had charged prisoners with refusal or failure to work 1,311 times.

To further illustrate the draconian nature of SCDC prison conditions, the document presented to South Carolina’s House Legislative Oversight Committee noted that prisoners had been gassed with chemical munitions on 457 occasions over a six month period. In 388 incidents, the chemical weapons were used under unplanned circumstances, but on 69 separate occasions SCDC gassed prisoners with chemical munitions as part of planned assaults, in which there was “no immediate threat of harm to one’s self, others, or public safety.”

An Urgent Call For International Solidarity With S.C. Prisoners

In September 2019, prisoners reached out to outside organizers to appeal to the U.N. together. Their concerns over continuously deteriorating conditions impacting prisoners are clearly warranted.

Over a 43-day period between October 3 and November 15, 2019, SCDC notified the public of the deaths of ten prisoners. The state ruled that five deaths were suicides, two were suspected overdoses, two were investigated as homicides, and the cause of death for the tenth has yet to be publicly released by the department.

When asked if the prisoners and families she communicates with feel conditions have improved, Tina said, “Unfortunately I have only seen things getting progressively worse.”

While SCDC blatantly ignores the terms of the mental health settlement, Director Bryan Stirling is eager to point to his partnership with the mainstream criminal justice nonprofit, the Vera Institute in what seems to be window-dressing to prisoners.

“[Vera] runs the character unit at Lee, and it’s run very similar to the way SCDC runs its [separate] character [based] units. So we’re still waiting to see when the human rights part comes,” laughed Al.

IWOC’s Karen Smith said organizers showed up for this international display of solidarity and action because “U.S. government entities have not only turned a blind eye to the abuse and suffering inside S.C. prisons but continue to fund it.”

“Incarcerated people in that state are calling for UN intervention to expose the horrors they live with daily. Activists heard that call and tried to appeal to as many UN offices around the globe as possible.”

In Jamaica, Christophe Samspon, the member of LANDS who dropped the petition off at a local UN facility, bluntly stated their rationale for getting involved, “Mass incarceration is a legacy of slavery, and race politics is my primary concern in the US.”

Al praised the actions of the activists on the outside. “I think it’s awesome. I think it creates more of a bridge of energy between the inside and the outside just to know that so many people in so many different places were willing to come together just to speak about the issues of South Carolina. Now of course personally—and not only personally but as part of an organization myself—I think there’s actually a little bit more there that the U.N. needs to hear.”

Prisoners may have the opportunity to expand the list of concerns, as the official request to the U.N.’s Office of the Special Rapporteur is still pending. Organizers with Fight Toxic Prisons are still looking for help from an international human rights lawyer to draft a formal request.

“By giving something to the U.N., that means we’re engaging the international community. And that has been one of our hopes in South Carolina, and particularly as part of the organization, to engage the international community,” Al noted.

“We have to have the solidarity of the international community,” Al concluded, “That’s what we’ve been sorely lacking, not just in South Carolina, but around the nation. I’m appreciative of the international community and everybody that stood up for us.”

Jared Ware

Jared Ware

Freelance Writer and Advocate for the Rights of Incarcerated Peoples