North Carolina

Lawsuit alleging SC inmate hanged himself while guard slept leads to $500K settlement

The family of a mentally troubled inmate who hanged himself in the Lancaster County jail while officers allegedly failed to check on him has been paid a $507,500 settlement by the local sheriff’s office’s insurance company, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia.

The money was paid to the estate of Randy Stevens, 44, a painter and roofer who struggled with alcoholism. He died in May 2014 after being brought to the jail because a friend had called 911 over worries that Stevens was suicidal, a lawsuit filed on behalf of Stevens’ estate charged.

Instead of placing Stevens in an observational cell where he could be under constant watch, correctional officers put him down a hallway far from the guard station, the lawsuit alleged.

Although that isolated cell was under video surveillance, during Stevens’ stay — which lasted only a few hours from his arrival to his death — one officer went to sleep at her desk and another left the jail entirely, the lawsuit said. One guard falsified records, making them incorrectly reflect that guards had made the rounds to check on prisoners when they actually had not, the lawsuit said.

Had the officers monitored the live video of Stevens activity, they would have seen him kneel down, say a prayer and then slowly begin the process of killing himself, according to the lawsuit. His body was in the cell for three and a half hours before it was discovered, according to the lawsuit.

The sheriff’s department admitted no fault in the settlement.

Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, reached Tuesday morning, would not comment on the settlement. Faile is the S.C. Sheriff of the Year for 2018, according to the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. As sheriff, Faile runs the jail and is responsible for what transpires there.

Stevens’ estate, represented by Stevens’ stepfather Bill Laney, agreed not to bring further legal action.

Columbia attorney Chris Mills, who represented the dead inmate’s estate with Jonathan Harling, said, “Law enforcement needs to remain open both to protect and to serve, not just to arrest and prosecute.”

The lawsuit against the sheriff’s department was brought under a federal civil rights statute that makes it unlawful for individual law officers to be “unreasonably and deliberately indifferent to a known serious medical condition.”

Communication failures led to Stevens’ death, the lawsuit said. Although Stevens’ friend told the two deputies that picked up Stevens that he had threatened to kill himself, the deputies failed to tell jail staff about the suicide threats, the lawsuit said.

Although jail guards are supposed to make regular personal checks on all inmates and all cells on an hourly basis, no rounds were conducted that evening, according to the lawsuit. One guard left the jail for an hour “for personal business,” and another — who was supposed to be monitoring live feed videos — went to sleep “for hours with her headphones on,” the lawsuit said.

Two guards were fired as a result of the death, and others were reprimanded.

Many of the facts surrounding Stevens’ death and the guards’ inactions that night were originally investigated and reported on by The (Rock Hill) Herald. The Herald obtained personnel and disciplinary records for the five employees though the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The settlement was approved on Friday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges.

Lawyers for the sheriff and his officers were James Davis and Joel Hughes of Columbia.