Thirty-seven condemned men on South Carolina’s death row moved into new quarters on Thursday.
A primary reason for the move is to give the death row inmates more time to socialize out of their cells than they currently have, prison officials said.
The allegation that South Carolina’s death row inmates spend so much time in solitary confinement — as much as 23 hours a day or more — as to be unconstitutional is a key issue in a 2017 lawsuit filed by some 19 death row inmates in federal court against the state prison system. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Aaron Jophlin, a Georgetown lawyer who is one of a team of lawyers representing the death row inmates, said Thursday that he will have to talk with his clients before he will be able to make an informed comment on the new facility.
The 37 killers, who were moved to a new building on the S.C. Department of Corrections sprawling 1,100-acre Broad River Road campus, were not told in advance about the move, said prison director Bryan Stirling. Death row inmates are generally well-behaved and there were no incidents, Stirling said.
Around 9 a.m. Thursday, the death row inmates began to pack up and “their items were searched and inventoried,” a news release issued by the corrections department said.
Then, with a State Law Enforcement Division helicopter circling overhead, the inmates carried their bags to waiting buses and boarded them for a short ride — lasting but a few minutes — to their new, highly secure building on the Broad River campus. The move was completed by noon. The buildings on the prison complex are named after state rivers, and the new death row structure is called Edisto.
“All movement on the prison complex was stopped until the inmates were secured inside the new unit,” the news release said.
The lawsuit that sought more “humane” treatment for death row inmates charged that inmates live in small, windowless cells and “Plaintiffs (death row inmates) are subjected to indefinite extreme isolation, devoid of mental stimulation, and have only sporadic human interaction... ”
The lawsuit said it is well-known that such extreme solitary confinement “puts prisoners at risk of substantial physical, mental and emotional harm” and “leaders in the United States have condemned the use of solitary confinement as inhumane.”
State prison director Bryan Stirling said prison officials did a lot of research before the move, visiting death rows in North Carolina and Virginia to study modern practices.
Space at the Broad River prison complex was recently freed up when the S.C. Department of Mental Health’s Sexually Violent Predator Unit moved to a new facility elsewhere on the Broad River Campus.
Death row prisoners will have more time to interact with their condemned colleagues at the new facility but they will not mingle with the general prison population. They will also be able to help out with chores in the new building, such as cleaning floors, doing laundry and delivering meals.
A photo showing part of the new death row released by the prison system Thursday showed little picnic-style tables where inmates can talk with each other
At the old facility, death row inmates were assigned to a narrow cell, slightly bigger than a walk-in closet, with 25-foot high ceilings and only one window that looked out into a hallway. There was no natural light.
A typical breakfast is grits, eggs, biscuits and juice. For lunch, they get a meal such as turkey, rice and gravy, a vegetable and juice or tea. Supper is something like spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans, salad, bread, cake and juice or tea. Over and over and over.
The killers include Tim Jones, sentenced to death by a Lexington County jury in June for killing his five children, ages 1-8.
Most of the state’s 37 other condemned killers come from the lower end of the social-economic strata. Few, if any, have Jones’ elite education or the prestige he had of working at a top technology company for high pay. Unlike Jones, none of them murdered five children, and certainly not their own.
Jones might be there a long time. One inmate, Fred Singleton, 75, from Newberry County, has been on death row since 1983 — 36 years. And South Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2011 — it is almost impossible for the Department of Corrections to get the drugs necessary for lethal injections. Although state law allows executions by electric chair, a condemned killer must opt for electrocution.
Over the years, South Carolina’s death row has held numerous notorious killers, including Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, whose known victims numbered a dozen or so and who claimed to have killed many more than that. Gaskins was electrocuted in 1993.
Bob McAlister, a Columbia public relations executive who has been a volunteer minister on death row for years, told The State “it was impossible to have any kind of conversation” with inmates in their former facility. He had to talk through a slot in the door, and there was so much noise that carrying on a conversation was difficult.
“There was no meaningful way to establish relationships,” McAlister said. “The only way I could talk to them was to literally shout.”
The most important thing, McAlister said, is that now real counseling opportunities and group worship are possible. “It does no one any good to have complete isolation.”
For those who say death row prisoners don’t deserve upgraded facilities, McAlister said, “God said ‘Go to the least of these,’ and the least of these are prisoners.”