COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The prison massacre that left seven inmates at Lee Correctional Institution dead in April has led lawmakers to launch a probe on state prisons.
Staffing, contraband, and rapid response times will be investigated by a team of state senators.
In the first meeting on Thursday morning, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told the committee there's not enough money for the department to hire all the employees required. Stirling says there are 612 officers needed, but there are funds only to hire about 285.
However, others who were in the meeting to launch the investigation told WIS-TV they feel it will take more than money to make prisons safer.
"It is a big ship, and it is going to take it a while to turn this around," Stirling said during the initial meeting on Thursday morning.
Stirling claims there have been salary raises with increased funding lawmakers have allowed in recent years, and this has changed things from before when, "I was walking into Lowe's and Home Depot over the weekend and I was seeing some of our senior people working to get extra money so they could survive to get food on the table."
Since then, Stirling says raises have helped hire employees. Salaries average at about $42,000 per year with overtime.
However, National Action Network (NAN) activist and family member of a former inmate Nelson Rivers also testified on Thursday morning. Rivers says there are other things to do to increase employee morale and better the department, aside from more spending.
"If [money] was the only reason that people work well, then people would never do a good job working for Chick-fila-A or McDonald's or anywhere else," Rivers offered, saying there should be more rewards and training.
Stirling says he visits prisons and employees and thanks them, holds an appreciation week, and more.
"I brought ice cream, I brought Easter baskets, I brought donuts, I mean you can go back and look at those little things just thanking them," said Stirling.
"That whole idea of giving people ice cream and donuts, I say 'come on, man. That's a stereotype anyway. Why would you do that?'" said Rivers.
Officers will get new boots and uniforms. They are allowed to wear nail polish and have tattoos. There is a program called 'leadership training' for officers.
"Respectfully, new boots and uniforms in my opinion, won't cure incompetence," Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D) Charleston challenged Stirling in the meeting Thursday.
Senators instructed Stirling to make a communications line for inmates and employees to voice issues through so that senators can hear from them without fear of punishment.
They plan to hold hearings on prison issues across the state as they look into prison problems.