New SC prisons chief: prosecutor, defense lawyer, crime victim, too

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 5, 2013 


Bryan Stirling, Gov. Nikki Haley’s pick for new state prison director, has defended criminals, helped prosecute them – and he’s even been a crime victim.

In 2009, Stirling’s Columbia house was burglarized at night by a serial burglar, and Stirling went to court in 2012 to make sure the judge and the public knew what effect criminal behavior had on people.

“My life – by his actions – has been altered,” Stirling told Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. in a court hearing at the Richland County courthouse attended by a State reporter.

“I no longer feel safe in my house.”

Thursday, appearing at a press conference with Haley at which she announced his selection, Stirling made it clear he knows his new job is not just about punishing criminals.

Part of what he will be doing, he told the media, is emphasizing training and education for inmates “so they don’t return to prison.”

That’s important for Stirling because, as he told Judge Cooper that day in court in 2012, he wanted the criminal who broke into his house to get a stiff sentence because he was out on probation at the time of the burglary.

Other goals, Stirling said, include lowering the recidivism rate, focusing on safety of corrections officers and reducing the prison population.

The 43-year-old Stirling is currently Haley’s chief of staff. He took over that job in October of last year for Tim Pearson, who – after leading Haley’s successful 2010 race for governor – left to run Haley’s political operation.

Haley said she is not ready to name a new chief of staff. “I’m going to take that step by step,” she said.

As state prisons director, Stirling will oversee a 26-prison state corrections system. It has nearly 22,000 inmates, 5,700 employees and a $420 million budget.

He will assume his post on Oct. 1, as the current director, William Byars Jr., retires.

Stirling, a Boston native, graduated from the University of South Carolina and is a 1996 USC Law School graduate. His mother’s side of the family, he said, includes numerous police officers, including a Boston Police Department chief of detectives.

Before moving into Haley’s inner circle, Stirling was a deputy attorney general under attorneys general Henry McMaster and Alan Wilson.

In the attorney general’s office, Stirling wore a number of hats, including prosecuting some 40 criminal domestic violence cases.

He also served as a liaison to the Legislature on a wide range of criminal justice and budget issues.

That legislative liaison experience will be a plus in the General Assembly, where the powerful lawmakers who control a state agency’s purse strings expect agency heads to meet personally with them when seeking budget money each year.

Before joining the attorney general’s office in 2006, Stirling was in private practice, helping to represent numerous defendants in federal criminal cases.

During the press conference, Haley said the Corrections Department was an agency that “as a legislator, I never thought much of. It was where we sent the prisoners. It was the one we forgot about. It’s the one I never felt we needed to send a lot of money to because they had done the crime and needed to serve their time.”

However, current director Byars taught her that it’s important to help both male and female inmates learn to be productive citizens who can get and hold jobs and raise families once they get back into civilian life, she said.

Mentioning the recently beefed up security at the riot-plagued Lee Correctional Institution, Haley said she also learned under Byars that it’s important to provide adequate security to protect both guards and inmates.

At a news conference at the State House on Thursday morning, Haley praised both Byars and Stirling, saying she was “blessed” to have both serving in their respective capacities.

Stirling is someone with whom she works well, she trusts and knows how she feels about Corrections, Haley said.

One of Stirling’s former bosses, McMaster, was in the audience Thursday when Haley announced Stirling’s selection.

“Bryan is calm under fire, thoughtful and very nonpolitical in his approach – he is a fact-based person,” McMaster said later.

Other reactions:

•  Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who previously was director of the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services under Gov. Jim Hodges, said, “For years I’ve known Bryan to be a talented and thoughtful leader. I applaud Governor Haley’s pick because I know Bryan will do an excellent job overseeing our state’s prison system.”

•  S.C. Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison said, “Gov. Haley continued an alarming pattern today, once again appointing political staff to head a state agency where they have little experience or qualifications in the given field.”

Previous corrections chiefs “knew how to run prisons and deal with prisoners, but Mr. Stirling’s primary experience is in dealing with politics and politicians,” Harrison said.

Stirling will likely be in line for a raise. As Haley’s chief of staff, he makes $128,750. Byars makes $154,879.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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