South Carolina Addresses Understaffed Maximum-Security Facilities

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina leaders are concerned about the safety of prison guards in their facilities, due to a chronically upside-down corrections budget. Accordingly, republican Governor Nikki Haley has recommended adding $10 million to the corrections budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year to cover prison upgrades, raises for officers, and to replace severely outdated weapons at the state’s eight maximum-security prisons.

The state’s corrections department has been through an interesting time recently with a drop in inmate population that has unfortunately been outpaced by an even larger lack of funding, leaving correctional officers understaffed.

Department of Corrections director Bill Byars told a panel of state legislators in the House of Representatives that while the overall number of inmates was going down in the state, the percentage of people incarcerated for violent crimes had gone up. The director argued that this phenomenon was actually making the working situation in the state’s maximum-security facilities less safe than before.

"I have facilities that are maxed out," Byars said. "It’s hard to get anyone to come in and work with these people."

The director added that 13 percent of the jobs in his agency were currently vacant, leaving current employees in a situation where inmates outnumber them by a nine to one ratio.

"We are short-staffed," Byars said. "I am still millions upon millions of dollars upside-down."

The current situation results from a 2010 bill that changed state sentencing laws, causing more severe punishments for violent crimes and alternative sentencing for nonviolent crimes. The bill has apparently worked as advertised, more violent criminals are staying longer, while less violent offenders are moving through the system, lowering the overall amount of inmates. While the state has since closed two prisons, the general drop in the number of prisoners hasn’t addressed overcrowding at maximum-security facilities.

If approved by the legislature, the new funding will be used to upgrade security measures in the most dangerous correctional facilities, including new cameras, metal detectors and the portable wands that fulfill the same function. Weapons dating back from the 1960s will also be replaced and officers will receive a 3 percent pay raise.

The funding would also cover the construction of two new watchtowers at Lee Correctional, a maximum-security prison in Bishopville that experienced two hostage situations last year, with both scenarios involving inmates assaulting guards.

"We are sending them in there everyday and not giving them the tools to protect themselves," Haley explained in her plea for additional funding. "You are not giving money to prisoners. You’re giving money to people who keep prisoners from harming you."

The governor’s budget included several other law enforcement addition, including funding for 25 new parole agents, 18 state troopers and 15 employees at the State Law Enforcement Division.