COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - It’s been almost a year and a half since a prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution left seven inmates dead.
Investigators said the root of the riot was territory and contraband cellphones. Just months before that incident, two men attacked another inmate at Turbeville Correction Institution and it was all caught on a contraband phone. Another situation involving an inmate using a contraband phone to flash a knife on a Facebook Live video at Evans Correctional occurred that same year.
These situations all center around the same challenges that officers continue to face within prison walls, including gang violence, contraband weapons, contraband cellphones, and understaffing. Officials at the S.C. Department of Corrections said, with some extra funds from lawmakers, they hope to put an end to these problems.
SCDC is requesting over $315 million to directly combat some of these issues, as well as other critical upgrades, this year. The budget request was sent to Governor Henry McMaster on Friday.
“It’s time to invest in the department for the folks that work here and the folks that are incarcerated here,” SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said.
The money would combat the shortage of officers in prisons across the state by raising salaries and creating new positions, including a gang enforcement security team. Another large chunk of the funds would go to security equipment, including cameras, ballistic vests, and technology to detect contraband cellphones.
“The phone can be used as a weapon,” Stirling said. “The phone is used to continue criminal ways. The phone is used to order hits, look at Captain Johnson, to order weapons, to intimidate people that work here, to intimidate witnesses,” Stirling said.
Stirling said he’s hopeful that lawmakers will approve a large portion of the request.
“They said we’ll do better this year,” Stirling said. “We need it. They know we need it. Just educating the general assembly, they’ve been supportive in the past and we will keep on educating the general assembly.”
To crack down on cell phones, SCDC wants to purchase a technology called “Cellbrite” that would intercept and analyze any cellphone or electronic activity inside the prisons. The current efforts to crack down on contraband phones, including high nets around the prison, seem to be working. Stirling said that, in 2017, officers confiscated around 7,500 phones. He said, this year, that number is down to around 2,500.
“Can the community feel safe that, ‘Ok, that person is out of society?’” Stirling said. “Physically, they are out of society, but virtually, they are able to wreak havoc on the citizens of South Carolina because of these phones.”
Stirling said last year, SCDC asked lawmakers for a robust budget for upgrades that was comparable to this year’s budget request, but only about 10 million of the additional funds were approved.
Stirling said the total budget for SCDC is just under $500 million, but this additional $315 million is critical to making the necessary upgrades to each institution.