FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CHARLESTON, S.C. – The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina and international law firm Arnold & Porter filed a federal lawsuit today challenging South Carolina’s failure to protect incarcerated people from risks associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in custodial settings. Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A) also joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities. Defendants named in the suit are Governor Henry McMaster, South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, and the South Carolina Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The suit seeks immediate relief for incarcerated people who are at particular risk of serious harm or death from COVID-19, including those who have serious underlying medical conditions, developmental disabilities or mental conditions or who are 50 years of age or older. Additionally, the suit seeks further reduction in the prison population through release of people who are within six months of their anticipated release date, eligible for parole and disciplinary free for the past year, or in custody for technical violations of parole or probation.
This action follows a series of efforts made by the ACLU of South Carolina to persuade officials to safely reduce the prison population in response to dire threats associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional facilities. Incarcerated people are housed in close quarters, are often in poor health, are unable to engage in social distancing practices recommended by the CDC, and thus are at heightened risk of becoming infected with and dying from COVID-19. Because of this severe threat and the potential for COVID-19 to rapidly spread throughout a correctional setting, public health experts have recommended the rapid release from custody of those who are most vulnerable.
“Public health experts have been clear - people who are incarcerated are highly vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19”, said ACLU of South Carolina Criminal Justice Policy and Legal Counsel Shirene Hansotia. “For weeks, we have asked Governor McMaster, the Department of Corrections, and other state officials to do everything within their power to prevent the deaths that would result from a COVID-19 outbreak in our prisons. These pleas have been ignored. Today we are asking the courts to do what our Governor should have done weeks ago – protect the lives of people currently incarcerated in South Carolina’s prisons.”
Jonathan Hughes, pro bono counsel at Arnold & Porter, said: “The rapid spread of COVID-19 is an unprecedented health crisis. Today we filed a lawsuit asking the Court to take immediate action to reduce the prison population in a way that promotes the health and safety of the prison population and surrounding communities. The issues raised by the lawsuit are a matter of life and death.”
“We have a duty under federal and state law to protect people with disabilities, said David Zoellner, Managing Attorney of P&A. “It is known that individuals with disabilities are much more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.”
COVID-19 arrived in a prison system already suffering from horrific conditions of confinement. For years, SCDC has been plagued by a chronic staffing shortage which created conditions that led to a deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution in 2018. A 2019 report by the S.C. General Assembly Legislative Audit Council clearly states that SCDC is unequipped to maintain safe operations and deliver necessary medical care and programs to incarcerated people on an average day, much less during a deadly pandemic. SCDC Director Stirling, himself, has acknowledged that his agency “cannot hire [its] way out of” the state prison staffing shortage, meaning that unless there is a significant population reduction, SCDC will remain unable to provide safety and sufficient medical care to those in its custody.
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina Charleston Division and can be found here.