Contraband, lack of officers top safety concerns inside SC prisons

Published: Jun. 15, 2017 at 10:53 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2017 at 6:43 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A riot was reported inside prison walls late Wednesday night, as inmates allegedly attacked corrections officers at an Edgefield County prison when officers tried to take away a prisoner's cell phone. 

The frightening scene left two officers injured. On Thursday, as the injured officers continue to recover,  staff told WIS that contraband and slim staffing remain the two biggest safety issues in South Carolina prisons.

Director Bryan Stirling says contraband in the hands of prisoners, like cell phones, is the most dangerous situation. Others believe staffing vacancies can worsen the threat.

Patrol lights flashed blue against the Trenton Correctional Institution sign in Edgefield County just after 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. It signaled the events that had transpired inside the prison dorms. Stirling says it was a riot and assault, destruction of the dorms, and fires set in courtyards.

"They continue their criminal ways from behind bars, and all they need is that cell phone. They're physically incarcerated, but virtually they're able to still operate like they were before they were incarcerated, which should scare everybody," Stirling says.

Former South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) psychologist Fordyce Mason believes low staffing can worsen situations like these. Mason worked for SCDC for 28 years before retiring.

"If you're an officer by yourself in a dorm that breaks down, you've got to call in and someone's got to run 100 yards to get to help you. It's really a very frightening and very difficult situation for many of our officers," Mason says.

He credits low pay for employees to the many job vacancies at the agency.  The department reports there are currently 915 security positions open
out of 3,893 security positions across the state.

"These officers are being exposed to some of the most difficult and dangerous and manipulative people in South Carolina. We have employees who do critical things for South Carolina. They need to be honored and respected with proper pay," Mason says.

Stirling says the latest riot at Trenton is still under investigation.

"It's too early to tell if light staffing contributed. We'll look at that. I can tell you that Trenton does have a high vacancy rate. What also is impacted here, though, is our response time. With our light staff, it makes it a lot more difficult for our folks to respond from all over the state," he says.

Stirling reports that officers and staff have had a recent pay increase, funded by the General Assembly, but he plans to ask for more. Starting salary for corrections officers ranges from the low $30,000's to mid-$30,000's, Stirling says. Employees now are paid overtime, too. However, those amounts still can't always compete with the higher pay for jobs at neighboring county jails.

"But we can't permanently fix it and avoid the problems unless we have quality trained correctional officers," Mason says.

Stirling adds that he has secured the state dollars this year to build netting around prison walls to keep people from throwing contraband over them. He's still concerned over drones d ropping items off over walls, though. He's pushed for a bill sponsored by Senator Vincent Sheheen for help preventing drones over prisons; that bill has passed the House but not the Senate.

Stirling has appealed to the FCC asking to block radio waves that allow cell phone service from prisons. He says the FCC will not block them, citing a federal law on the books since the 1930's that prevents it.

SCDC staff have testified before the FCC to plead for the measure, including a former officer, Robert Johnson.

"He was shot several times at his house on a hit order from inside the prison, and he's testified and said this needs to change," Stirling says.

Just this week, Attorney General Alan Wilson's office also announced an investigation into a meth ring linked to cell phones from within prison walls, with charges on inmates.

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