Civil rights group urges S.C. prisons to free some inmates due to COVID-19

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

The ACLU is fighting for the release of state inmates with a higher risk for complications and death from coronavirus in South Carolina's prison system, where the Allendale Correctional Institution is a COVID-19 hot spot.

However, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Corrections said the department does not have the legal authority to release an inmate before their sentence has been served.

The decision now falls into the hands of the federal court system, which would have the power to make such a decision.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina questions how prisoners are expected to practice social distancing to control their exposure to COVID-19 when “physical distancing and vigilant hygiene are impossible under current conditions.”

There is particular concern for certain categories of prisoners. Court documents state many people in prisons are more vulnerable to the illness because of chronic underlying health conditions like diabetes, asthma, and compromised immune systems.

“Generally, people who are incarcerated are in worse health than the general public, so they are at higher risk a lot of the time for catching the virus,” ACLU’s Policy and Communications Director Ali Titus said.

The group’s complaint criticized the department’s “COVID-19 Action Plan.”

The plan includes the following:

• Enhanced health screening of staff will be implemented statewide. Such screening includes self-reporting and temperature checks.
• Newly arriving inmates are being screened for COVID-19 exposure risk factors and symptoms. Asymptomatic inmates with exposure risk factors are quarantined.
• Symptomatic inmates with exposure risk factors are isolated and tested for COVID-19 per SCDC health authority protocols.

So far, two SCDC inmates have died because of complications related to the coronavirus. According to SCDC’s COVID webpage, 68 correctional and non-institutional staff members have tested positive for the illness as of May 19. And 64 offenders at Allendale Correctional Institution and Kirkland Correctional Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. SCDC officials say none of the department’s other facilities have reported positive cases.

“The US Constitution protects everyone, and that include people who are incarcerated. It’s our duty to do everything in our power to protect them from harm,” Titus said. “Incarcerated people are people. They’re humans, and that’s an important thing for us to remember. None of us is defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done, so that I think is an important concept to keep in mind as we approach this important issue.”

The lawsuit seeks immediate release for prisoners who would be more susceptible to the virus’s, sometimes deadly, symptoms including those with serious underlying medical conditions, developmental disabilities or mental conditions, those who are 50 years of age or older, and others.

Agency spokesperson Chrysti Shai said the department has no legal authority to release any inmate before they have served their time. She said state law does not allow that.

“Courts impose sentences. We carry them out. We cannot change someone's sentence,” Shain said.

In a motion to dismiss, Gov. Henry McMaster’s attorneys surmised the complaint was filed because the petitioners are “unhappy that they must remain in prison for the duration of their sentences.”

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