Madalyn Wasilczuk, assistant professor and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic, is one of five U.S. law professors selected as 2023-2024 Bellow Scholars by the Association of American Law Schools for her report South Carolina Deaths Behind Bars: 2015 – 2021 based on public records requests filed with agencies across the state.
The Bellow Scholar announcement came just one day after the formal release of the report, the first comprehensive collection and analysis of its kind.
“The U.S. imprisons more of its people for longer sentences than anywhere in the world,” Wasilczuk says. “While the numbers of people behind bars are known, much about their lives is hidden from public view. Transparency is a first step in the direction of accountability for what goes on inside our prisons.”
School of Law students filed 196 Freedom of Information Act requests for records of deaths in custody in prisons, jails, lockups, and juvenile detention centers, including those prepared and submitted to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Students also reviewed news articles to identify unreported deaths that occurred behind bars.
- Although Black South Carolina residents are disproportionately incarcerated, deaths in custody are evenly distributed between Black and white prisoners.
- Men accounted for 93.82 percent of known deaths behind bars (729) versus 6.18 percent (48) for women.
- Those who died in the state’s custody overwhelmingly died of medical causes, with suicide as the next most common cause of death.
- None of the 777 people who died behind bars in the state during this period were sentenced to death row.
“I hope that this will start a conversation with the public, journalists, scholars, and legislators about the place of jails and prisons in our society and the conditions inside them. No one deserves to be forgotten, but for too long we have been willing to forget that incarcerated people are part of our community,” Wasilczuk says. “Looking at and understanding why and how people are dying behind bars creates an opening for beginning to take seriously the health, welfare, and dignity of all members of our community.”
Financial support for the project was provided by Arnold Ventures. Scholarly support was provided by Professors Judson Mitchell and Andrea Armstrong of Loyola University New Orleans, research assistants Nikesh Amin and Reilly Lerner, and University of South Carolina School of Law faculty support staff Lisa Davis, Vanessa McQuinn and Ashley Alvarado.
The Bellow Scholar Program selects scholars every two years to recognize and support innovative research proposals designed to improve the quality of justice, enhance the delivery of legal services, and promote economic and social justice. The program supports scholars who employ empirical analysis, connect research to advocacy, and collaborate extensively between law and other academic disciplines. Selected projects become the focus of information sharing, discussion, and critique at the annual AALS Clinical Conference and at annual workshops organized by the committee.