COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Unsanitary conditions and staff negligence caused the death of a 27-year-old man in a South Carolina jail earlier this year, a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.
Richland County officials sent Lason Butler — who displayed “erratic behavior” — to a room at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center where he frequently lay naked with an unflushed toilet and was placed on suicide watch — even though they knew the unit was unfit for inmates with mental health issues, according to the lawsuit.
After a two-week period during which Butler lost more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms) and was assessed to be “floridly psychotic,” he was found dead on Feb. 12 with fresh rat bites and no running water, the lawsuit alleges.
An autopsy report showed Butler died of dehydration. The Richland County coroner ruled Butler’s death a homicide, noting a “lack of action” by the jail staff. At the time of his death, Butler was the third detainee to die this year, the coroner said.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Butler’s mother, Lakeshia Butler, alleges that staff were deliberately indifferent to Butler’s serious medical needs, violating his due process rights under the 14th Amendment. The suit names Richland County and six jail employees.
The defendants’ failure to provide “sanitary conditions, access to health care, and relief from solitary confinement was unreasonable, was done intentionally, willfully, maliciously, and with deliberate indifference and/or reckless disregard for (Butler’s) basic human needs, and caused death,” the lawsuit argues.
Butler’s family joined civil rights attorneys Audia Jones and Bakari Sellers, the former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, at a news conference Wednesday. There, lawyers walked through a series of witness accounts, medical reports and graphic images to highlight their case.
“We don’t know how much a Black man’s life is worth, but we’re damn sure going to find out,” Sellers said.
Blood tests showed Butler’s sodium levels to be 184 milliequivalents per liter — far above the normal range and indicative of dehydration, according to Sellers. Other inmates submitted written reports that Butler cried several nights for help to keep the rats away. The lawyers presented security videos that showed jail officials dropping his “motionless” body from a gurney to the floor.
Lakeshia Butler said she attempted several times to pay her son’s $1,500 bond and was told he had been placed on hold. Butler had been a few months away from completing trucking school, she said.
“I worked hard to keep my son alive, to make him a man. He was a human being. It didn’t matter what he did. Everybody makes mistakes. That’s what he made: a mistake,” she said, tears falling down her face. “But he shouldn’t have had to pay with his life. His life is priceless.”
Police arrested Butler on Jan. 31 on charges of reckless driving, failure to stop for blue lights and driving with a suspended license.
The litigation is not the first to allege poor and dangerous conditions at the jail. A federal lawsuit brought by Disability Rights South Carolina in April alleges unsafe and unsanitary cells where detainees with disabilities are held for up to 24 hours a day. Detainees with disabilities are also left naked in cells without monitoring while on suicide watch, according to that complaint.
Burnette Shutt & McDaniel attorney Stuart Andrews, who is representing Disability Rights in the other case, said the conditions described are “flatly unconstitutional” and “inhumane.”
“No one, particularly not folks with serious mental illness, should be exposed to conditions that have been as bad as those at the jail,” he said. “We believe they’re driven largely by chronic, severe staffing shortages that the jail officials have reported consistently to the county for an extended period of time.”
Staffing issues at the jail have been well documented. According to a Richland County Council meeting agenda last summer, there were about 141 detention officer vacancies as of June 4, 2021, a number the council noted was “higher than normal.”
To draw more job applicants, the council unanimously voted in July 2021 to recommend increasing detention officers’ starting salary to $36,500, effective August 2021. The facility, according to one council member, could operate effectively with fewer than 264 budgeted detention officers. To help pay for the wage hike, 50 positions — which had been vacant for “quite some time,” according to a council member — would be frozen.
The family’s lawyers said the issues at the jail and the conditions that led to Butler’s death go beyond staffing issues. Sellers reiterated his push for the jail to stop housing those with mental health problems in the unit.
“This is a humanity problem,” Jones said.