Getting arrested shouldn't be a death sentence, but for at least 153 people taken to local jails in South Carolina in the past decade, it has been.
Note the words "at least." As in: The number is almost certainly higher, but we don't know how high.
A 1978 state law requires the state's 57 local jails and six prison camps to report details of any inmate deaths to the state Department of Corrections. But the penalty for not reporting a death is just a $100 fine, and besides, no one enforces that law.
The Post and Courier's Angie Jackson reviewed news articles from the past decade and discovered several cases where jail deaths that made the news didn't make the official reports. There could be others, since her review of news accounts wasn't comprehensive, and it's possible, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, that some deaths never made the headlines.
Former state Rep. Vic Rawl, now a Charleston County councilman, told Jackson that he helped write the 1978 reporting law "to make sure things didn't get swept under the rug." Unfortunately, there's no reason to think the law did its job.
As disturbing as it is that jail officials would ignore the reporting requirement, that's just a symptom of the larger problem: Since no one at the state level is paying attention, no one is looking for patterns and problems, and no one is holding people responsible when inmates die in their custody.
It's hard to get people to care about the plight of people in jail; we have a tendency to think of them as criminals who deserve what they get. But even if it were OK to ignore the deaths of people who have committed crimes, the fact is that local jails often double as debtors' prisons, where people are kept because they can't afford to pay their traffic ticket or make their child-support payment. Most of the inmates are awaiting trial, and might not be guilty of the allegations that landed them there.
In South Carolina, jail deaths are handled pretty much the same way as officer-involved shootings — that is, however the local jurisdiction chooses to handle them. As with officer-involved shootings, there's no requirement that the State Law Enforcement Division investigate inmate deaths. Instead, investigations are left to county coroners and the jails or local police themselves. The coroners don't compile statistics on jail deaths; more significantly, they don't have the same investigative tools that SLED has.
The spotty job we do investigating or even keeping track of jail deaths is unacceptable. We need to require that SLED investigate all jail deaths — along with all officer-involved shootings — and make the results easily available to lawmakers and to the public.
Independent investigations can tell us whether a death was the result of suicide, accident or homicide. If it was a homicide, that means either another inmate or a jail official killed someone, and needs to be prosecuted. If it was a suicide or an accident, we need to know whether there are procedural changes — better monitoring, for instance, or better medical care — that could prevent similar deaths.
When our government, acting in our name, holds someone in custody, it becomes responsible for what happens to that person. It has no right to look away when that person dies. Neither do we.
This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.