Senate panel studying South Carolina prisons questions staffing, contraband, and more

Senate panel studying South Carolina prisons questions staffing, contraband, and more

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A panel of lawmakers is trying to come up with solutions to problems like short staffing and contraband at South Carolina prisons.

In a meeting Thursday morning, senators remarked on recent attention on the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), from an escaped inmate, to riots and assaults. The Corrections and Penology Oversight Subcommittee is studying SCDC, and will visit prisons as part of research
before offering recommendations for fixes.

"Do you see a morale problem within the South Carolina Department of Corrections?" Senator Karl Allen (D- Greenville) asked SCDC Director Bryan Stirling.

"The officers? No. I don't think there's a morale issue. I think they see that we're doing... You're always going to have folks that you know when you work at a large agency that aren't happy with certain things, and we are addressing those," Stirling answered.

There were plenty of questions, like the ratio of inmates to officers. Right now, Stirling says that's 39 to 1 during the day, 80 to 1 at night.

"When you have an 80 to one ratio at night, that's a lot more prisoners than there are security, so I think that's one of the main concerns we've got to work with," Senator Katrina Shealy (R- Lexington) said.

Another concern is the number of assaults on officers.

"The violent offenders have increased and nonviolent have not because of sentencing reform and some other things. The assaults have remained about the same. They are close to where they've been for the last five years in the mid to high thirties range- one assault is too many on an officer," Stirling said.

One solution is for prisons to receive more state dollars to add officers and raise salaries. But that doesn't take care of another problem, contraband.

"They say idle hands are the devil's workshop," Shealy said. "So what does he do to keep him active and keep his mind occupied so he's not you know, sitting around thinking about somebody throwing a cell phone over the wire…?" she asked Stirling.

Senators like Shealy question the jobs and activities available to inmates. Their next step is to hear the concerns inmates and their families have, before visiting prisons.

Stirling says they are requesting devices that can block certain phone calls inmates with cell phones may try to make—but he's still pushing for the FCC to jam signal from prisons.

Congressman Mark Sanford has written a letter to the FCC in support of jamming the cell phone signals, saying: "To not use all possible tools at our disposal puts people's lives in danger and - in some cases - makes a mockery of what it should mean to be behind bars."

Copyright 2017 WIS. All rights reserved.