Editorial: Find a way to ensure the names of deceased SC inmates are public | Editorials

The SC Corrections Department says it intends to release the name of any executed prisoner whenever South Carolina resumes execution. This is the good news. The bad news is that he is not releasing the names of other prisoners who died in state custody unless or until Attorney General Alan Wilson says so.

The new prison policy emerged earlier this month, when a man who was sentenced to 421 years in prison in 2006 for kidnapping a 14-year-old girl, repeatedly raping her and holding her hostage in an underground bunker loaded with explosives died. in state prison.

It was a notorious crime that inspired a Lifetime TV movie, and his passing is something our government should automatically tell us about. But media coverage of Vinson Filyaw’s death was based on anonymous sources, as the Corrections Department said only the coroner could provide the name of the prisoner found dead in his cell, and McCormick County Coroner Faye Puckett, refused to do so.

There is no justification for the coroner’s behavior, and voters should let her know if and when she stands for re-election. But Columbia State Journal reports that the Department of Prison Affairs instituted a new policy in January against the identification of deceased inmates, on the grounds that it might be illegal.

The first thing to say is that any law that would restrict what a prison can say to the public about inmate deaths is a law that needs to be changed. We should know just about everything that can be known when a person dies in state custody, in part so that we can hold prison officials accountable if they contributed to that death.

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The law in question is the federal health privacy protection act known as HIPAA, which serves a useful purpose, but has also put ridiculous amounts of information out of the public eye and has created an industry of litigation over what kind of information she does and what not. allow governments, businesses and nonprofits to post or request.

The second thing to say concerns the “could be illegal” part. Corrections spokeswoman Chrysti Shain tells us that prison medical officials expressed concerns in January, based on changes to the ever-evolving HIPAA rules and their new awareness that the agency was releasing the names of deceased prisoners. The agency therefore sought legal advice from a HIPAA expert. When that opinion came back inconclusive, the agency asked what it assumed was a quick opinion from Mr Wilson’s office – and stopped releasing the names of the deceased prisoners pending that opinion.

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Director of Corrections Bryan Stirling said he wanted to release the names but felt he had to stop until he got the legal green light. The elaborate procedure her agency has devised for getting information to the public seems to confirm her desire: Ms Shain asks the coroner of the county where an inmate dies to disclose the name – since coroners are not considered caregivers health and a prison. spokesperson… could be.

Usually, coroners cooperate and a press release from the agency announces the death and quotes the coroner identifying the deceased. In fact, no one seemed to have noticed the January change until Mr Filyaw’s death this month, as either the coroners cooperated or the names of the deceased were not newsworthy information – per example in the case of COVID deaths.

While we respect Mr. Stirling’s desire for caution, we believe he should have maintained the old policy unless the Attorney General told him federal law prohibited it. In fact, all government officials should err on the side of disclosing information – especially when it comes to information about how the government exercises its policing powers.

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Frankly, the opinion of an attorney general should have been the first thing Correctional Service asked once the question arose. One of the Attorney General’s most important jobs, after all, is to provide precisely that kind of legal advice to government agencies.

Mr Wilson’s office says he has been very busy producing other opinions and this one is more complicated than it looks, but hopes to have it completed this week. We wish it could have been produced earlier; perhaps it would have been a priority if the request had made it clear that Correctional Service was withholding names until it got an opinion – as it should have.

But the most important thing now is to clarify the matter. And if the opinion is that disclosing the names of deceased inmates does indeed violate federal privacy law, Mr. Wilson must help Corrections find a way around that problem. At the very least, the Legislative Assembly should require coroners to disclose names.

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