SC Prison Inmates Sue for Early Release as Coronavirus Claims Lives Inside

May 7, 2020

51 year-old Chris Varner of Anderson found love late in life.  He's been married to Gay Stanley for nearly a year.  They've spent much of their time together, apart.  He worries he may never see her again.

"I honestly believe it would be the end of her if she catches it," says Varner.

His 48 year-old spouse is vulnerable to the coronavirus.  She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.  It's a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe.

"This could turn into a death sentence for her." - Chris Varner talking about his wife who's behind bars

But as much as he'd like, Varner can't protect his wife.  She's behind bars at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia.  She's serving 16 months for violating parole on a shoplifting charge.  Varner says she didn't have a ride to a parole meeting.

"This could turn into a death sentence for her," he says.

The Numbers 

South Carolina prisons have recently seen a rise in COVID-19 cases.  The Department of Corrections reports two inmates have died and dozens more have tested positive.  At least 50 corrections workers have come down with the virus. One lost their life.  The department updates the numbers daily. http://www.doc.sc.gov/

The SCDC has requested assistance from the South Carolina National Guard for 20 to 30 soldiers to help medical teams at Kirkland, Allendale and Lee correctional institutions monitor roughly 1,600 inmates for symptoms of the virus. Kirkland and Allendale are both on quarantine after prisoners there tested positive.  Lee is being used as a medical facility.

The Inmates

Varner does talk with his wife by phone and what she tells him is concerning.  She says soap and hand sanitizer are no longer available.  A doctor appointment for chemotherapy wasn't kept.  Stanley has been diagnosed with liver cancer while behind bars.

Mark Trammell fighting for early release because he has stage four liver cancer and recently suffered a heart attack. He's served 40 years for kidnapping and voluntary manslaughter.

"Their constitutional rights have been violated for a long time," says Tresa Bebeau of Summerville.  She's served as an inmate advocate for several years.

Bebeau has heard it all, from inmates being denied medical treatment to not receiving personal protection equipment or PPE during the pandemic.  She says some guards aren't wearing masks.

Bebeau is trying to get a 59 year-old inmate with stage four liver cancer released.  Unlike Stanley, Mark Trammell's rap sheet is long. 

He's been behind bars for 40 years at the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia.  He's already served his 30 year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. But for kidnapping, he was given life.  Today that charge carries no more than 30 years.

Bebeau says he recently suffered a near fatal heart attack.

"Now he's dying," she says.  "He certainly isn't a threat to society at this point."

The Lawsuit

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina has filed a lawsuit in Charleston federal court on behalf of Varner's wife and other inmates.

"To us, incarcerated people are people and they're human beings," says Ali Titus, the Policy and Communications director for the ACLU of South Carolina.

"In this country they're protected under the U.S. Constitution."

The group wants South Carolina to do what other states have already done, release inmates who are vulnerable to the virus like people over the age of 50 and those who have medical conditions or disabilities.

"Folks who really don't pose a significant threat to the public safety and really, really should not be in prison right now," says Titus.

The lawsuit also claims the state's prisons, with a population of roughly 17,000,  are not equipped to handle a pandemic.

"Our department of corrections is still grappling with a significant staffing shortage which resulted  in the deadliest prison riot in America in 25 years," Titus says.

Two years ago, seven inmates were killed at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina.  The state's prison system has been asking for additional funding for better security.  But this year's state budget is in question because of the pandemic. 

The Defendants

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the governor, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the members of  the  South Carolina Board of Pardons and Paroles.  All have declined to comment on the pending litigation.

SCDC spokesperson Chrysti Shain says the department does not have the legal authority to release inmates due to the coronavirus pandemic.   She strongly denies allegations that soap and hand sanitizer are not available for prisoners.

South Carolina state law does show some legal provisions for medical furloughs and emergency parole hearings for terminally ill inmates, but under strict guidelines.  http://www.doc.sc.gov/policy/HS-18-01.htm.pdf  https://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t24c021.php

Meantime, the Department of Health and Environmental Control has issued one of its 15 Abbott rapid-testing devices to the Department of Corrections to speed up testing for  COVID-19.  

As for the South Carolina Board of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, it stopped holding hearings more than a month ago because of the coronavirus.  There's no word on when those hearings will resume.  

SCDPPPS spokesperson Peter O'Boyle issued a statement saying they are testing technology to  continue hearings as soon as possible and ensure the timely release of inmates.  The statement also says the agency has released nearly 400 prisoners to various supervision programs with roughly 100 going to parole supervision.

The Wait

Gay Stanley's sentence ends in July.  Her husband wishes she didn't have to spend another day behind bars.

"They're people too," Varner says.  "In a lot of cases they've just made a mistake."

He prays she doesn't pay for a non-violent crime with her life.

"She's the love of my life," he says.