COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s corrections chief has moved death row prisoners for the second time in two years, this time trying to answer concerns over inmate treatment raised in a federal lawsuit.
In their new home, the 37 prisoners condemned to die for their crimes will be able to eat meals with each other, worship together and have jobs for the first time in more than two decades, prison officials said. They still will be kept in individual cells.
Since 1997, the state’s death row inmates have not only been kept in solitary confinement; they also have eaten all their meals in their cells and only been able to leave for an hour of recreation time a day. Even in the rec yard the prisoners were confined to a sealed enclosure resembling a large dog pen, with wire mesh above their heads.
The inmates will now be treated more like regular prisoners, although they will still not mingle with the general population, Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling said.
The move happened Thursday, with buses taking the prisoners from Kirkland Correctional Institution to Broad River Correctional Institution about ½ miles (0.8 kilometers) away.
The new home was prompted in part by a 2017 federal lawsuit filed by more than 15 death row inmates. The lawsuit initially focused exclusively on the prisoners’ isolation, but was later broadened to include problems that the inmates said arose from death row’s unexpected move from Lieber Correctional Institution near Charleston to the capital, Columbia.
In Columbia, the suit alleges, death row inmates were kept in the same wing with prisoners who had severe behavioral problems, such as throwing feces or making noise all night. The prisoners also lost their use of a microwave, no longer had control over the lights in their cells and had no access to the art supplies, coffee pots, typewriters and books they had been allowed to have at Lieber, the suit says.
Attorneys who filed the lawsuit were aware a move was planned but didn’t know the exact day, lead attorney Aaron Jophlin said Thursday.
“We’ll have to meet with our clients and observe the facility before we decide what to do next,” Jophlin said.
Stirling said he studied death rows in Virginia and North Carolina to find a better way to house South Carolina’s inmates.
The death chamber where executions are carried out has been located at Broad River Correctional Institution for more than 30 years. The prison also housed death row inmates from 1988 to 1997. They were transferred to another institution as the pace of the state’s executions increased, which took a psychological toll on guards charged with the safety of prisoners whom they then later had to help execute.
Stirling said he took that under consideration as the death row inmates moved to the same prison where the electric chair and lethal injection room are.
“The folks who work with them on a daily basis would not be the ones to walk them over to the death chamber,” Stirling said.
South Carolina’s death row population has dwindled by 25% since 2011, the last time the state executed a prisoner. Instead of execution, inmates have had sentences reduced on appeal. Only two new prisoners have been sentenced to death since 2011.
The state ran out of the drugs needed for lethal injection in 2013 and hasn’t been able to buy more since.