COLUMBIA, S.C. — State senators on the Senate Corrections Committee are worried about the conditions inside South Carolina prisons. “There is overcrowding; that’s an issue. There is underpaid staff; that’s an issue. And there’s low morale within the population as well as those that are employed there,” said Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, Thursday morning at a committee meeting at the Statehouse.
The committee got an update from Corrections director Bryan Stirling, after two recent serious incidents. Earlier this month, four inmates were strangled to death at Kirkland Correctional in Columbia. Two other inmates have been charged. And then last weekend, inmates at Kershaw Correctional in Lancaster County attacked three officers, stabbing one, and took control of a dorm. The officers’ injuries were not life-threatening and an emergency response team regained control of the dorm within hours.
Stirling said he couldn’t give senators details about the inmates who were killed because of the ongoing investigation. When asked about the officer who was stabbed and how that happened, he said, “I think I need to stay away from that one. I can tell you, and I’ve said this repeatedly for other incidents, one of the most dangerous times our officers face is when they’re trying to take contraband or a cell phone away from an inmate.”
He also updated senators on the department’s shortage of correctional officers. There’s a vacancy rate of more than 30 percent, but he said Alabama’s is 54 percent and Mississippi and Louisiana both have vacancy rates of 47 percent.
He said the agency is vigorously advertising to hire more officers and his streamlined the process to get them trained and working faster. He’s also created “retention lieutenants” who work with officers who are planning to leave to see if changing shifts or locations could get them to stay.
But he said low pay remains a problem. Lawmakers provided money to give officers a raise of $1,500 a year this year. Stirling asked for the same amount next year but the Senate included a raise of $1,000 in its version of the budget. A final budget still has to be worked out by House and Senate negotiators. Still, raising starting salary to just above $30,000, when it was about $25,000 in 2013, has helped, he said.
As for staffing levels, Stirling told senators the national standard is to have four officers on duty for every 30 inmates, but in some South Carolina prisons the ratio is one officer for every 200 inmates at times. “If it gets to a point where we think it’s not safe, we have to lock the institution down, and we monitor that all the time,” he says.
Senators were frustrated by not being able to get details about the latest prison incidents. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said, “We do owe it to the public to find out what really happened here and what we can do to prevent it from reoccurring.”
And Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said, “I don’t think the lack of pay is the reason an officer got stabbed last week. I think that there are other issues that are going on and I don’t think that’s director Stirling’s fault.”
He suggested that the committee have a meeting that’s not open to the public so senators can get information that cannot be released publicly because of the ongoing investigations.
Stirling told reporters after the meeting that, in addition to hiring more officers, the department is installing more security cameras, searching prison visitors more thoroughly for contraband, and is buying 30-40 foot nets that it will install to keep people from throwing contraband over prison fences.