S.C. lawmakers said Monday they were not surprised to learn that seven inmates were killed and another 17 were injured during an overnight brawl at a state maximum-security prison.
One lawmaker called the state's prison system a "powder keg." Another said the deadly riots demonstrate just how underfunded the system is. A third said there have been enough legislative committee hearings on prison conditions and it's time for lawmakers to act.
"A mass-casualty incident inside a correctional facility is simply unacceptable," S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said Monday. "Rioting like this is a symptom (that) our criminal justice system is broken and needs reform now."
The deaths of seven men at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville — the most deaths at any state prison in recent history — put yet another spotlight on the rough and sometimes violent conditions that S.C. prison guards face daily, lawmakers said. S.C. prisons have staffing shortages, leaving a single corrections officer sometimes to oversee dozens of inmates.
Lawmakers said the state must do more to drive down the state's prison population, using sentencing reform to weed out non-violent inmates.
"We have way too many people in prison," Rutherford said. "When you have 30 inmates and 10 are the most violent and need supervision, (and) the rest are drug offenders, that corrections officer still has to oversee 30 people."
The state has tried to address the state Corrections Department's staffing woes, caused, in part, by tough working conditions and low pay.
The S.C. House added about $3.7 million to its proposed state budget that takes effect July 1 to give corrections officers a raise. The state Senate added $5 million.
"Corrections needs more resources, especially in its most dangerous facilities," said state Sen. Shane Martin, the Spartanburg Republican who chairs the Senate's prisons committee. "The current budget proposal addresses the need, to an extent, but we have to keep the commitment to public safety and do more next year."
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said raises will help the agency retain staff. But, he added, the Legislature must assess the agency's other needs, including better security and spreading out the "worst of the worst" inmates, now concentrated in maximum-security units.
All of the legislators expressed confidence in state Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who frequently has testified before lawmakers about prison system conditions and staffing needs.
Stirling also has worked to cut the number of cell phones smuggled into prisons and used to commit new crimes.
But Rep. Rutherford, an attorney, said state prisons should consider letting inmates have phones, subject to being monitored and tracked by an outside vendor. "We're simply past that time of pretending technology does not exist."
Primarily, however, lawmakers said Monday the state needs to give more money to the prison system.
"I hate that tragedy is always the spark to get the fire of change going — whether it's Walter Scott, Mother Emanuel, or whether it was a school bus wreck or a train derailment," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Bamberg Democrat who represented an inmate slain at a state prison on New Year's Eve. "When are we going to say, as a state, that our people deserve better, that people don't have to die before we actually say, 'Let's fix it.' "