A legislative audit has found no major problems in the operation of state prisons but says there is room for improvement.
Still, the report released Thursday by the Legislative Audit Council didn’t satisfy some legislative critics of the Department of Corrections.
State Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, said the review leaves unanswered questions about how well prisons are run.
“I have questioned the agency repeatedly because forthright answers are seldom forthcoming,” he said.
Corrections director Jon Ozmint said the audit largely vindicates the agency after a two-year review he characterized as a “failed witch hunt.” The agency responded to the findings as part of the report.
The audit’s main findings include:
1. The ratio of inmates to guards seems to be 6-1 instead of 9-1 as often claimed, but even the lower level is higher than the average among Southern states.
2. About $5.6 million was paid to staff and inmates in legal expenses and damages from 2000-2007. Another $1.5 million went to separate agency legal expenses from 2001-2008. But J. Lewis Cromer, a lawyer for some former employees, says the tab is mounting as the department’s appeals of many lawsuits against “big mistakes” are winding down.
3. Mistakes in complying with agency hiring guidelines sometimes occur, although largely, the agency follows those guidelines.
4. Inmates ought to be given written standards so they know which transgressions could mean they miss meals by being confined to cells. But putting the practice into writing could invite legal challenges over the withholding of food, the agency said in its response.
5. Agency guidelines for handling escapes, hostages and weapons are adequate, although an inmate should not have been given a knife during staff training on searches in 2005.
6. The free home given Ozmint, a perquisite few other states provide, ought to be sold. But agency officials in their response said that won’t be done, partly because it is near nine prisons and would be difficult to sell even in a good market.
7. More needs to be done to deter theft of livestock on agency farms that are raised to feed inmates.
Auditors wrote that they were unable to survey 6,000 prison workers on complaints about harassment, intimidation and favoritism after Ozmint sent out an e-mail to employees raising issues about the survey’s content.
That move “impaired” the audit, said Leventis, who is asking Gov. Mark Sanford to replace Ozmint.
Other lawmakers are uncertain whether the audit will lead to significant changes.
The audit is “a terrific job,” but it’s too soon to forecast its impact, said state Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican who heads the Senate panel that oversees prisons.
Other than selling his state-provided home, Ozmint promised to follow most of the audit’s suggested changes.
“Our policies are not perfect, and at times we fail to follow our own rules,” he said in a statement. “We admit that we make mistakes, and we welcome fair-minded assistance in identifying areas where we can improve. Our employees try hard to make us safer, but sometimes they get overzealous.”
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.