COLUMBIA — Officials at a South Carolina jail have been so focused on keeping mail from inmates that they’ve become lax on basic security, according to a former warden who ran the federal penitentiary that replaced Alcatraz.
In a report filed in federal court Friday, John Clark said he observed “a slipshod approach to security inspection procedures” by officials at the Berkeley County jail during a visit in October.
Clark has served as an official with the federal Bureau of Prisons and as a warden of the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., the complex that replaced Alcatraz when it closed in 1963. He wrote that he initially scheduled the visit to the jail in Moncks Corner, about 100 miles southeast of Columbia, to learn more about the facility’s policies on inmate mail, reading materials and religious texts.
Clark’s report was filed in court by Prison Legal News, a monthly legal journal by the Human Rights Defense Center that since 2008 has tried to send publications to Berkeley County inmates. The copies were returned after officials said the staples posed a security risk.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued, arguing the magazine’s and inmates’ constitutional rights are being violated. A jail officer told publishers that the only book inmates were allowed to have was a soft-back Bible, but now other religious texts are allowed, and Clark wrote that a library has also been made available.
Jury selection in the case is set for June.
An attorney for the jail has said it spends thousands of dollars to repair locks, toilets and electrical outlets damaged by inmates trying to tamper with them using staples.
Given the attention to staples, which Clark said he felt were so small they couldn’t cause many problems, he said he was sure he’d find the jail’s security to be top-notch. But while there, Clark wrote, he saw poor perimeter security that puts the facility at risk for contraband such as drugs, cigarettes and cellphones, and guards who didn’t even know how many of the jail’s roughly 300 inmates they were charged with watching at a given time.
“For two days, I observed a striking level of loose, disorganized security which could put the staff and the prisoners of BCDC at risk,” Clark wrote. “I have never been in a facility where responsible administrators were so casual about this matter, not knowing the exact number of prisoners on count that day.”
In a separate court filing, an expert witness for the jail said the Berkeley County jail is not without its challenges but that officials are not acting recklessly in managing the facility.
“It is apparent that if any of the plaintiffs’ experts (or even I) were the jail’s administrator, they (or even I) might prioritize the issue of staples differently,” wrote Donald Leach, a former jail administrator in Kentucky. “But the discretion used in prioritizing their tackling of those challenges is within the purview of the Berkeley County Detention Center’s administrators.”