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Attorneys Say Richland County Jail Denies Legal Counsel

More than a dozen lawyers reported that the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in South Carolina has made visiting and providing legal information to clients extremely difficult or impossible.

(TNS) — More than two dozen lawyers told a South Carolina court that Richland County's jail is denying detainees effective legal representation.

In affidavits written in April the lawyers say that at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, they've had attorney-client privileges violated; endured prolonged waits to see clients, if they get to see them at all; been required to meet with clients through poor quality visitation booths; and been unable to show clients the evidence prosecutors will be using against them, which one attorney described in a letter as a "constitutional and ethical failure."

Visiting clients to give them legal advice or information has "become extremely difficult, and in many instances impossible," one attorney wrote. "I worry constantly that I am failing my clients."

County Administrator Leonardo Brown said in response that "The dedicated men and women who work at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center make significant personal sacrifices to selflessly serve the public" and that the county has approved "all of the (detention center's) facility improvement requests."

The letters were filed to the court at an April 27 hearing. The hearing concerned the Richland County Public Defender's Office getting access to detainees at Alvin S. Glenn or letting the detainees out on bond.

The judge in the hearing concluded that the jail, which is operated by Richland County, needed to create solutions to the problems in 30 days.

When described the contents of the letters and the lawyers concerns, University of South Carolina law professor Madalyn Wasilczuk said the assertions could indicate that the jail is violating the United States Constitution by denying people their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection and due process.

"The Supreme Court itself has said that to deprive a person of counsel during the period prior to the trial may be more damaging than denial of counsel during the trial itself," Wasilczuk said. "That's a right that's been recognized for decades."

"The jail has to provide a reasonable opportunity to seek and receive the assistance of an attorney," she said.

The assertions in the letters add another layer of criticism of the jail and Richland County.

Those criticisms have mounted since a September attack on two detention officers by more than a dozen detainees. Two people have died in the jail this year, including one who died of dehydration, which was ruled a homicide. The other died of heart failure, according to the Richland County Coroner's Office.

Along with the attack and deaths, violence also has risen. The problems have been blamed in part on a years-long shortage of detention officers, The State previously reported. The staffing shortage was cited in a lawsuit filed last week against Richland County. The lawsuit claims that the county is mistreating people with mental illnesses at the jail, leaving them restrained, secluded and under-supervised, if supervised at all, even those on suicide watch.

In the letters, many lawyers assert that the problems with accessing and speaking with their clients is caused by the staffing shortage. Detention officers aren't in cell blocks where detainees are housed, meaning lawyers can't visit clients or calls aren't answered to escort a detainee to a lawyer, according to the letters.

Since around the summer or fall of 2021, many lawyers have been outright barred from visiting clients in private areas of the jail, according to the letters.

"I have never experienced a lack of access to my incarcerated clients on this scale," attorney Kathleen Warthen wrote.

Wait Or Be Turned Away

All of the letters describe waits of from nearly an hour to all day to visit just one or a few clients.

Spending a whole work day at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center may only allow a lawyer to see three to six clients, according to the letters. Others wrote they were denied access to their clients.

Attorney Jasmine Lambert wrote that she started taking a book to the detention center to read during the long waits.

Some of the attorneys said the waiting and inaccessibility of clients started between June and November 2021. A shortage of staffing is often given as a reason for lawyers not being able to see their clients, the letters say. Warthen described the number of detention officers working as a "skeleton staff."

At the hearing, the acting director said the jail had 74 staff member. If fully staffed the jail would have about 250 employees, according to the testimony. The jail houses about 675 detainees.

Attorney Sarah Jurick wrote she was denied seeing a client at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center four times in March.

Another attorney wrote that on more than a dozen occasions, staffing shortages have prevented him from seeing clients at the jail. He's been told that an entire cell block could not be visited.

"I estimate that I have spent greater than 100 hours just waiting at the jail for client visits in the last twelve months alone," attorney Ross Abbott wrote.

Prior to the pandemic, lawyers could easily see clients at the jail, according to the affidavits. While the pandemic cut off access for a time, the letters make it clear that the jail's staff shortage is the real barrier to lawyers meeting with clients.

When attorneys are able to see clients, it's not in person and it's through dated, flimsy technology, the letters reveal.

Silhouettes and Static

In the last year, the jail has required attorneys to meet with clients over what was described as "70s style" video calls with poor quality and unreliable audio connections. Lawyers wrote that they had never seen some of their clients in person.

"If I am lucky, I sit in one of two tiny private rooms with a 70s style computer screen holding a phone up to my ear trying to hear my client," attorney Lindsay Selma Adler wrote. "If I am unlucky, I sit in the jail lobby looking at a 70s style computer screen holding a phone up to my ear trying to hear my client."

The waits and poor quality booths mean that lawyers, at times, have to rush through critical meetings only days before important court dates, according to the letters.

The jail has four "booths" designated for lawyers to meet clients, and the privacy of those booths is questioned throughout the letters. Two of those booths allow attorneys to meet their clients in person, and the other two are video booths, where lawyers get a vague image of their clients and talk through a unreliable, pay-phone style receiver.

The cameras are of such low quality that they "show dark images of our clients, sometimes little more than a silhouette," attorney Hope Demer wrote.

The audio lines are "filled with static" and drop out, attorney Jack Duncan wrote.

In at least three letters, attorneys wrote jail staff mixed up their clients, putting the wrong one on the video call, but the attorneys didn't know it because they were unable to recognize the image or comprehend who was on the line.

In one case, an attorney spoke with a detainee for about three minutes and discussed confidential information before the lawyer realized it wasn't his client.

Another attorney also wrote about speaking to the wrong detainee. When she got her actual client on the call, he thought the attorney cared little about the case, and he left the call and wouldn't speak with the lawyer for 30 minutes.

At the in-person booths, the pay-phone style receivers don't work, attorneys wrote, forcing them to shout through plexiglass to communicate with their clients. One attorney said her voice would become hoarse after she discussed evidence with clients.

People charged with a crime have a right to see the evidence the state will be using at in the case. But the booths only allow a minimum amount of evidence to be discussed, according to the letters.

Tiny slots in the in-person booths only allow a few sheets of paper to be passed at a time, but attorneys often have hundreds of pages to go over with their clients, the letters say. Because of the poor connections, audio and video evidence cannot be shown to clients.

While the legality of video calls as a form of legal counsel has been upheld by some courts and thrown out by others, what the courts agree on is that video calls "have to be confidential and they have to be of a quality where you can have a meaningful discussion and where the client can see any documents that the lawyer would want to show them," Wasilczuk, the law professor, said.

The group of lawyers filing the letters argue the jail doesn't provide that quality and confidentiality.

Attorney-Client Disadvantage

Screaming over broken phone lines in rooms with unknown people nearby destroys attorney-client privileged, the lawyers assert in the letters.

The "private" attorney booths are next to an office for jail administrators, an attorney wrote. She believes that jail administrators can hear her conversations with clients about sensitive information pertaining to cases.

Police officers from agencies investigating their clients are sometimes nearby when lawyers are trying to talk about cases with their clients.

In one such incident, a lawyer discussed a case with a client in a "private" booth only to come out and find a police officer standing just outside the room, according to a letter. The officer talked about the conversation the lawyer just had with her client.

In another letter, a lawyer describes trying to talk to a client in a booth while a police officer loudly interrogated a detainee in a nearby booth.

If the four attorney booths are all taken up, the lawyers can choose to talk with their clients in booths set aside for the public in the lobby. But many attorneys said they were hesitant about doing that because jail staff and others are close enough to hear.

"It is impossible to maintain true attorney-client confidentiality on the public video booths," Abbot wrote.

The assertions reveal the potential for "serious" criminal case problems for Richland County, Wasilczuk said.

Cases could be thrown out if defendants are able to show they weren't allowed effective legal representation.

And the assertions in the letters could open the county up for a civil rights lawsuit for "overall systemic denial of counsel."

Among all the concerns and claims again Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center spelled out in the letters, one seems the most personal to the lawyers — trust never being gained.

The inability to hear nuances of a person's voice, to shake hands, make eye contact and see body language is brought up throughout the letters. Not having that prevents trust from being built between an attorney and client, the lawyers said in the letters over and over.

"My ability to effectively represent my clients is currently the worst it has ever been," Jurick wrote. "By meeting via video, or having a time-constrained (evidence) review through plexiglass, I am not able to build the necessary relationships to assist in decisions that oftentimes involves decades of their lives."

County Responds

When told about the content of the letters to the court, County Administrator Brown, who ultimately oversees the administration of the jail, gave a statement:

"The County has taken steps to increase officer retention and attract new officers to the detention center by raising detention officer salaries; adopting a new pay scale; implementing a pay plan that includes a $5000 sign-on bonus for new hires, a $5,000 retention bonus for current officers, a $1,000 referral bonus program, and temporary additional pay for exempt officers who work a certain number of extended hours; in addition to approving all (detention center) facility improvement requests. We continue to explore additional steps we can take to support our employees and promote the health and safety of everyone at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center."

(c)2022 The State (Columbia, S.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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