Records: Detention center officer slept as inmate died in Lancaster County jail

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJuly 6, 2014 

— A corrections officer on duty at the Lancaster County jail when an inmate hanged himself in May was fired because she fell asleep for two hours with headphones in her ears and falsified jail records showing she had performed routine checks on inmates when she had not, documents obtained by The Herald show.

Her supervisor also was terminated, records show, because she ignored the employee’s sleeping on the job, left work for an hour without permission and failed to make sure officers were checking on inmates.

In its internal investigation of the inmate suicide, the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office placed five detention center employees on administrative leave. Channell Thompson, a senior correctional officer, and Cpl. Gwendolyn Watson, a supervisor, were fired two days later. Three other officers were suspended without pay for three days but have since returned to work.

The Sheriff’s Office investigation found that the actions of the officer and her supervisor were violations of jail policy but did not contribute to the death of Randy William Stevens, 44, who was found hanging above a toilet with a bed sheet around his neck at about 4 a.m. May 20.

Thompson declined to comment, and efforts to reach Watson were unsuccessful.

Through his attorney, Sheriff Barry Faile declined to comment “due to the potential for litigation in the future.”

Faile and his attorney, Justin Bagwell of Columbia, also declined to answer questions that dealt with whether Thompson and Watson were responsible for directly supervising Stevens at the time of his death.

The names of all five jail employees are on a sheet officers used to record that they had checked on Stevens every 30 minutes on May 20. Because he was listed as drunk and violent, Stevens was considered a “special needs inmate,” according to jail policies, which dictate that he should have been checked every 15 minutes.

The Herald obtained personnel and disciplinary records for the five employees through the state Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper also obtained the police report detailing Stevens’ arrest, his time inside the jail and initial findings deputies made once he was found unresponsive.

The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating Stevens’ death. Spokesman Thom Berry said the investigation is “open and ongoing.” Once completed, SLED investigators will turn over their findings to prosecutors, who will decide whether criminal charges will be filed.

Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield said he has been in discussions with SLED about the investigation, but he has not received a file for review. He would not discuss the case but said “nothing formal” had been decided and he was unsure when a decision might be reached.

Stevens reported ‘possibly suicidal’

On May 19, Lancaster County deputies approached Stevens outside a store after they were called about a “possibly suicidal” person, according to a sheriff’s report. The man who called police told deputies he wanted to enroll Stevens in a substance abuse program.

Stevens twice told deputies he did not want to harm himself, the report states, but he became combative with officers, even kicking a deputy in his knee. After he complained of chest pains, deputies took him to Springs Memorial Hospital, where he shouted profanities at nursing staff and later apologized. He became irate again when a doctor ordered a heart monitor for him. Still, hospital staff cleared him for incarceration.

Once in jail, police reports show, Stevens was belligerent as officers took him to a private cell. Minutes later, the officers went to check on Stevens when they could not spot him on a jail camera. They found him lying under his bed, laughing.

While checking on inmate cells, an officer told Watson, the supervisor, that “something needed to be done” about the window in Stevens’ cell, reports show, because it was “just about impossible to see inside.” Some time later, another officer checked Stevens’ cell and also reported that the window was hard to see through. When the second officer called Stevens’ name and didn’t get an answer, reports show, Watson unlocked Stevens’ cell, where they found him hanging from a bedsheet.

Jail officers “are not trained to be mental health professionals,” said Brad Tripp, a Winthrop University sociology professor who teaches classes in criminology and corrections. “If you’re using … corrections to do what it’s not meant to do, we have a big problem there. It’s like using the military to increase fashion awareness.”

It’s possible, Tripp said, that jail officers didn’t perform closer checks on Stevens because he never showed suicidal tendencies in the past. Stevens had been released from jail early on May 19 before he was arrested again hours later, records show. His criminal history dates back 30 years, court records show.

“If X, Y, Z worked in the past, a lot of times you’ll think it’ll work again,” Tripp said. “Maybe they engaged him at similar levels of observation in prior incarcerations, and it never went wrong.”

Internal investigation finds violations

A week after Stevens died, the Sheriff’s Office released findings of its internal investigation, which Faile said had uncovered several policy violations. Most of those violations “related to the amount of time between the routine jail checks,” Faile said, but none contributed to Stevens’ death.

The investigation showed that Thompson on May 20 slept with headphones in her ears for two hours. Lancaster jail policies require all corrections officers to remain awake at work. Records indicate she also failed to make appropriate checks on inmates and falsified the jail log by indicating the cells were checked when they had not been.

Officers must make “supervision rounds” of inmate housing units at least once every hour, and every 15 minutes for inmates requiring special needs or those still in the booking area, according to the detention center’s policies. When a check is made, that time should be written on the daily log.

The director of a prisoners’ rights group says policy violations documented in the records obtained by The Herald might suggest a “lack of oversight from the top.”

Falsifying jail logs is “a crime” and “really strikes at the heart of the ability to run any kind of correctional operation with any integrity,” said John Boston, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society. In South Carolina, unlawfully removing, defacing or destroying public records is considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail or at least a $500 fine.

“There’s a reason the records are kept,” Boston said. “Part of it is to make sure what’s done is actually done. Somebody who’s not doing the job and falsifying records about it, that’s deep trouble for a place to be in.”

Tripp, the Winthrop professor, called it “highly important” that people in law enforcement do things “by the book.”

“As citizens,” he said, “that’s disappointing and upsetting to all of us when the people that have that level of power” misuse it.

Sleeping on the job is a common problem for jail officers working long shifts, Boston said.

“Number one, it’s hard to stay awake and, number two, it gets very boring going around (making checks), because you’re never going to see anything 99 percent of the time,” he said. “One percent of the time, though, somebody’s life is at risk.”

Records show May 20 was not the first time Thompson had been caught sleeping at work. In March 2013, she was reprimanded after she fell asleep during a gang training seminar. She explained she had eaten lunch and found it hard to stay awake, according to records.

Two months later, jail administrators spoke with Thompson about the results of a polygraph test, records show, after she had been accused of using derogatory language toward an inmate three days earlier. The test disproved the allegations of derogatory language use, but Thompson admitted that she used “unprofessional language” toward the inmate, according to disciplinary records.

Administrators also warned Thompson, records show, about “telling inmates where other inmates are housed, what they are doing, if they have been moved or not, and for what reason.” Supervisors told Thompson they did not think she should transfer to the Sheriff’s Office to become a deputy because she would be working more independently, “and that is not recommended at this time.”

‘Larger management problem’

Thompson’s supervisor, Watson, was fired in May after deputies say she failed to ensure that proper jail rounds were completed, failed to ensure those rounds were documented and left the detention center for more than an hour without permission. Watson, documents show, also ignored Thompson as she slept on duty and did nothing to address her behavior.

“If your supervisor doesn’t care you’re doing X, Y and Z, where’s the motivation?” Tripp said. “By leaving and doing other things during (Watson’s) shift, others picked up that, ‘You know what, chill out, relax, it’s not a big deal.’”

The violations are signs of a “pretty serious breakdown” in the jail’s operations, Boston said.

“If somebody falls asleep and the supervisor is out to lunch or out to the Walmart or whatever, then you really have no protection,” Boston said. “The question really is, does that point (to) a … lack of oversight from the top? ... This kind of stuff really puts people at risk. It does seem very clear that they have or had a supervision problem at that jail.”

Tripp agrees, saying there could be a “larger management problem” at the Lancaster County jail.

“If someone who is in a managerial capacity takes their duties that lightly,” he said, “that’s something to be very concerned about.”

Watson was reprimanded before, in 2011, when she failed to request a medical evaluation for an 86-year-old inmate with high blood pressure and stomach and heart issues.

In a 2012 inspection, the state Department of Corrections found at the Lancaster jail 11 violations of minimum standards for South Carolina jails and prisons. The only violations related to employees led to a recommendation that the detention center hire more officers to deal with a growing inmate population. A 2013 state inspection report was not available last week.

In the end, Tripp said, firing Thompson and Watson was “the appropriate recourse.”

Corrections “is a challenging job,” he said, “but (inmates are) still human beings, they’re still American citizens with a certain level of rights. There’s still a level of safety (that) should be sought.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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