A state prisoner could get a chance to visit a dying loved one or their funeral under a bill making its way through the S.C. Legislature.
The bill would require the Department of Corrections to offer inmates who are deemed to not be a security risk to be taken to the funeral of an immediate family member or to the hospital if the loved one is facing imminent death.
The bill’s author, Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, said the proposed law is a must, because the department has previously taken some people to a funeral and declined to take others on arbitrary reasons.
“What we don’t want is the department selectively choosing a wealthy person versus a low-income person,” said Allen, while addressing the agency’s director on Thursday. “We want you to offer it.”
But Bryan Stirling, director of the Department of Corrections, cited several concerns with the bill, including the agency’s lack of manpower; the corrections department has been struggling to hire and keep its prisons fully staffed.
Because of staffing levels, a previous corrections director suspended the practice of transporting prisoners to funerals and hospitals after 2005, when they performed 594 transports. In 2016, 10 were transported by sheriff’s departments – not prison staff, Stirling said.
“We do not transport anymore,” Stirling said. “We are under strain to run the institutions.”
Another issue Stirling raised was cost of transporting prisoners. But the bill allows for department to charge inmates for the cost of their trip from their trust account, which allows prisoners to make purchases at the commissary. Family members could also pay the corrections department. The cost of transportation would involve the hourly wage of two correctional officers plus mileage.
But prisoners don’t have much cash in those accounts to begin with. Of the state’s more than 20,000 prisoners, 86 percent have a balance of $100 or less in their accounts, while 54 percent have $10 or less.
Stirling also raised a public safety issue. When an inmate is taken in and out of a facility, the chance of an escape increases, as does the chance that contraband can be introduced into a prison, he said.
Despite Stirling’s concerns, the bill cleared its first hurdle on Thursday. It’s not the first time such a measure has advanced, however. The Senate passed the same bill in 2016 on a 39-0 vote. But it died in committee once it made its way to the House of Representatives.