WASHINGTON, D.C. (WIS) - Behind bars inside of South Carolina prisons, some safety issues are under investigation; lawmakers are looking to fix problems like contraband smuggling, riots, and attempted escapes by focusing on staffing SCDC (South Carolina Department of Corrections) more heavily and stopping the flow of contraband.
But what will it take? Recent prison tours senators in a special committee have taken have shown them priorities to set.
When you ask Director Bryan Stirling where his department stands on staffing, he immediately talks money - meaning employee salaries.
"We're seeing more people applying. We're seeing more interest, and our numbers are improving in most of our institutions," Stirling says.
There have been raises, which he believes help fills vacancies. Officers start at just over $31,000 per year to just under $36,000 per year, with overtime. He's not satisfied with that and will ask more from lawmakers. But there are still hundreds of vacancies to fill; he says some prisons are short-staffed because it's hard to compete with surrounding jobs, like at BMW in the Upstate.
"First thing you learn in law enforcement is that you need presence, and some institutions we'd have one officer covering both sides of a dorm, which is not what we need. We'd like to have several officers in that dorm to work with the inmates, for everybody's safety," Stirling says.
Records show that since January 2011, as the state's unemployment rate drops, the front-line vacancy rate at SCDC rises. It's highest was in January 2017, at 31.4 percent. Today it's dropped to 27.4% which is better, but still, needs work, Stirling says.
"We lose officers almost every day, and when incidents happen, yes we have seen officers leave," he says.
Just last week, inmates at McCormick Correctional Institution managed to get keys and get on the roof. Stirling says that's under investigation, but that overall, more staffing could help prevent these acts.
Senators who have toured prisons include Katrina Shealy (R- Lexington). She visited the Manning Reentry/Work Release Center and Perry Correctional Institution. She says she was pleased with the Manning program but had some concerns over Perry.
"I didn't feel so comfortable there. I was ready to leave, you know. But I felt safe because I knew they weren't going to you know, there were enough people when we were there that they weren't going to let anything happen," she says.
Shealy says there's a 1 to 90 officer to inmate ratio in some dorms; she says her priority is to get more people working there.
As for dangerous contraband, Stirling says the cell phones and weapons have long caused safety problems. He's installing more cameras and is still looking for a fair price on installing netting to stop items from being thrown over fences, as the project is in its procurement stage.
The department is looking to spend no more than $7.65 million to install those nets to keep out contraband, hoping to get to work putting those up by the end of January.
Earlier this week, one prison in Rock Hill, Catawba, shut down. That frees-up 21 officers to transfer to other prisons for work, the department says. They would be able to keep about $200,000 that would have gone to operate this facility.