New video shows inmate left to die in South Carolina prison yard as guards walk by
The US prison system has faced harsh criticism regarding drugs, disorder and disorganisation on the part of those in charge. This is exemplified by the South Carolina prison system which, just last month, was referred to as "in crisis mode".
With huge questions over the American justice system and its use of punitive - rather than restorative - methods, one incident is bringing into sharp focus the apparent lack of compassion in those whose lives revolve around the incarcerated.
On New Year's Eve 2017, Allen "AJ" Capers was involved in an altercation with other inmates at South Carolina's Turbeville prison. Stabbed several times by two other men, he was in a critical situation and in dire need of help.
Two guards dragged the 32-year-old outside, into the yard, and left him there while they attempted to restore order inside. The temperative was just above freezing as Capers lay on the ground, writhing in pain, for half an hour.
"Following an inmate altercation at Turbeville," read the tweet posted that evening from South Carolina Department of Corrections, "one inmate was killed and eight inmates were sent for offsite medical attention."
CCTV footage obtained by NBC News shows guards walking past Capers as he lay dying in a pool of his own blood. Eventually, a fellow inmate comes to his aid before two inmates take him away on a stretcher. However, by this point, Capers had stopped moving.
Capers' mother, Debra Dickson, has never seen the video. "I don't encourage any mother who gave birth to her child to see her child tortured," she told NBC. "I want to remember my child as I knew him." Since the incident, she has filed a lawsuit against the state's prison system, which manages 21 facilities each holding an average of 1,000 inmates."I want justice, for Allen," she explains. "I want change by whoever has the ability to actually change it."
While Dickinson doesn't express outward aggression towards those who could have saved her son, she is one of many demanding justice. The video below is a bittersweet reminder that, when the shoe is on the other foot, prisoners will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to save guards.
As an inherently dangerous job, staffing is a major issue. "The turnover is so high because people don't feel safe," explains Stan Burtt, an ex-warden at Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County.
"Controlling that individual becomes very difficult because he has nothing to live for," he explains, in relation to increased sentences. The average starting salary to be a guard in South Carolina is $34,000 (with an average of $5,000 for overtime). This perceived low quality of staff, for which there is a plethora of potential causes, could have serious implications.
Last April, seven people were killed at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. The incident constituted the largest riot in an American prison facility in the last 25 years. "It is worse in these Southern prisons and frankly no one is taking the investigation [into the Lee riot] seriously," said historian Heather Ann Thompson, who published a book on the notorious Attica prison uprising. "The prisoners have no voice and no advocates and it's really, really easy to sweep these stories under the rug."
In the past two years, there have been 21 murders - in addition to 10 suicides - in South Carolina prisons. While it seems unfair to place the blame at the door of wardens and officers, there is undoubtedly an institutional lack of care. Only last month, it was reported that 10 South Carolina prisoners, all convicted of violent crimes, had been released early in error.
"[Pay] is one aspect of hiring or retaining officers," Byran Stirling, director of the state's Department of Corrections, states. "The other thing they want to know is if they're safe at work. I think if we showed them that we're making these steps and we're making these strides, I think that's very important."
"But you can't just turn around a department that you know has not received the funding it should over a decade or so in a couple of years," Stirling argues. He also advocates back-to-work programmes which businesses can sign up to: "If they don't have a job, that's going to lead them to come straight back to prison at a very high taxpayer cost."
It could be said that Stirling should accept responsibility for what happened. "I don't know if he should've died," he ponders, on Capers' death. "I know that we should have done more to render aid." However, some commenters have come to his defence.
“If a mistake has been made, Bryan Stirling will correct it," said Harpootlian, who also serves on the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee. "I think he’s the best director they’ve had in 50 years.”
However, just weeks after the incident, 14 South Carolina prison officers were indicted for accepting bribes and smuggling in contraband. However, the issue is both qualitative and quantitative. Authorities say that around 600 more guards are needed to ensure that prisons in South Carolina are safe. However, they are only able to hire another 225.
"I don't want any mother to go through what I am going through," Debra Dickson explains. "Don't wait till it happens to another inmate. Don't wait until another mother is sitting in this chair."The day that Capers died has been painted by prison officials as complete chaos with "offenders running around with makeshift weapons, shanks, chair parts, fire extinguishers." Near to where Capers was stabbed, one officer saw "bloody hand prints on the shower doors, and blood on the walls entering the unit."
Reports indicate that guards radioed to the prison's main control office, saying "medical assistance was needed as soon as possible." However, clearly, the actions of those responsible for Capers' wellbeing fell short of saving him. To this day, no one has been charged with the murder of Allen "AJ" Capers.