Prisons director defends no-food policy

COLUMBIA -- Some state inmates who break prison rules including grooming standards are being denied food, according to Corrections Department documents.

The practice, outlined in an internal e-mail from Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint and in agency medical reports, says inmates who chose to break the rules are choosing not to eat.

Ozmint, a lawyer and former prosecutor, said the practice is legal because the consequence results from prisoners' own decisions.

"There is no inmate in our system who is being denied food for discipline," Ozmint said Monday. "Our policy does not allow that."

Any such interpretation of agency documents is either a lie or misunderstanding, he said.

Strict enforcement of behavior standards helps make prisons safer for everyone, Ozmint said.

Prisoner advocates said using food to punish inmates who break rules violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment and best Corrections practices.

"To me, that goes back to concentration camps," said former state corrections director Bill Leeke, a 30-year veteran and its director for 19 years. "We're a civilized society."

Federal courts have permitted withholding food in very limited circumstances. A 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision set a benchmark that prison officials may not resort to "deliberate indifference" toward inmate suffering.

In a 1991 food deprivation case from Texas, a federal appeals court said Eighth Amendment protections limit how far prison officials may go in withholding nutrition.

"When you start messing with food, the guys say, 'That's it. Now you're really treating me like an animal,"' said Charles Fasano, director of prison programs for the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.

Hunter's defiance

Tyger River Correctional Institution warden Tim Riley said an average of five inmates a month at his medium-security Spartanburg County prison do not eat for breaking grooming standards.

One inmate, Darrell Hunter, 26, did not eat for five days in November and needed medical attention after he refused to shave with a razor, according to agency records obtained by The State.

"Note in log book on 11-2-06 from Capt. Alexander that inmates not in compliance with the grooming policy were not to be given meal tray," Hunter's medical report states.

The medical records say Hunter was "being denied any meals" for five days because he would not shave.

Hunter told prison officials he was not on a hunger strike.

After not eating for five days, Hunter told prison medical officials he was weak, describing his body as "cramping and feeling lightheaded."

On Nov. 8, a medical report states that Hunter shaved and started "receiving (food) trays and eating."

Ozmint disputes what the records show. Hunter was given a tray of food each day, he said Monday. He also said prison officials at Tyger misinterpreted the policy.

Ozmint said his internal memo had nothing to do with Hunter, though it was issued while the inmate was not eating.

"Our rule is simple ... any inmate is allowed to decline the opportunity (to eat, exercise, shower or have visitors) by failure to comply with our reasonable requirements," Ozmint wrote in his e-mail to wardens and agency leaders. "Eating is a voluntary activity and any inmate may refuse to eat."

Hunter is serving 12 years on aggravated assault and drug charges. He has a long criminal history and record of prison violations.

He has been written up 117 times and has been under lockup much of his time, Ozmint and warden Riley said.

Prisoner advocates

Margaret Winter, an attorney and associate director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said food deprivation for discipline is illegal.

"I've litigated a lot of terrible prison conditions but none where food was denied as punishment," she said.

Winter cited the 1991 Texas case by a jail inmate who would not dress properly for meals.

Texas officials made the same argument as Ozmint, that prisoners waived their right to food when they violated grooming policies. The court rejected that argument.

Ozmint said there are court cases that permit the actions his agency is taking. He said he could not cite them from memory.

Former S.C. prison directors Leeke and Doug Catoe both said they did not withhold food for discipline.

Catoe, who led the agency for two years in the late 1990s after a 30-year career there, said although he didn't use the same tactic, he does not disagree with Ozmint's practice.

"Your own mama wouldn't let you come to the table in your underwear," Catoe said.

Ozmint said his November e-mail was intended as a reminder about the importance of enforcing prison rules.

Keeping prisoners from privileges, "is not a disciplinary action nor is it punishment," he wrote. "It is simply the practical, administrative execution of our duty to provide safe, secure prisons."