Questions about mass murder at Kirkland Correctional Center
Advocates for prisoners and the mentally ill say the state’s corrections department doesn’t have the resources to handle an increasing number of convicted violent inmates.
The state’s 2010 sentencing reform act has changed the makeup of prisoners in recent years. Since 2002, the number of violent prisoners has increased from 46 to 66 percent, according S.C. Department of Corrections records.
Admission of violent prisoners has remained constant over the past seven years. But the number of non-violent inmates has been slashed nearly in half, from 11,156 in 2009 to 6,813 in 2016, records show.
That amounts to about 13,700 violent offenders out of an estimated 20,700 state inmates, according to records.
It also means a higher concentration of violent prisoners per officer, which is an “extremely bad ratio,” said Laurens Republican Rep. Mike Pitts, a retired police officer.
“If I’m one officer per 75 inmates, it’s not a bad ratio when (prisoners are) spread out,” Pitts said. “But when you’ve concentrated the worst of the worst ... All it takes is a moment of distraction by one inmate to create a terrible situation by others.”
Pitts suggested perhaps it’s time the state explore a plan for a smaller number of prisoners per officer. But the law enforcement section of the state’s roughly $8 billion general funds budget has been underfunded for a long time, with healthcare and education taking priority slots, Pitts said.
Legislators and advocates said, however, that lack of funding, too, has contributed to a shortage of officers, creating a situation where tragic incidents – like the killing of four inmates allegedly by two others at a Harbison-area prison last week– could take place.
Jimmy Ham, 56, Jason Kelley, 35, John King, 52, and Williams Scruggs, 44, were lured individually into a cell, where they were strangled with an electrical cord twisted tight by a broomstick, sources told The State newspaper.
Jacob Theophilus Philip, 25, and Denver Jordan Simmons, 35 have been charged with the murders. All six prisoners were been housed in a Kirkland Correctional Institution dorm where inmates receive treatment for mental disabilities.
The killings could have been avoided if the agency had been properly funded, said Mandy Medlock, the executive director of Justice 360, on Wednesday. The Columbia-based organization advocates for a fair criminal justice system for capital defendants.
“Now we’re seeing a horrible example of what happens when the Department of Corrections does not have the proper resources,” Medlock said. “What a horrendous way to find out that something is not working.”
Seven agency staffers were in the dorm at the time of the killings, plus two correctional officers, said Sommer Sharpe, spokeswoman for the corrections department. The dorm is divided into two wings and has one officer per wing at any given time. There were 139 inmates in the dorm last week, with one officer overseeing as many as 70 inmates with a variety of mental challenges.
Though it’s too early to tell if staff shortages could have contributed to the killings, vacancy rates are a “serious problem” for the agency, said Stuart Andrews, an attorney who represented an advocacy group that sued the corrections department for its poor treatment of the mentally ill.
It could lead to a future “unexpected terrible incident,” which is why the department has asked the legislature to appropriately fund the agency, he said.
“Some have described it as a potential time bomb,” Andrews said. “It’s one that affects the safety of inmates, staff and, ultimately, the public.”
The department has launched large-scale hiring efforts to reduce it’s agency-wide 30 percent vacancy rate. Kirkland Correctional is short on officers by 14.6 percent.
Agency director Bryan Stirling also has requested the Legislature give $3,000 raises over two years to his officers to entice them to stay and to attract new candidates. Current starting salaries range between $30,263 and $33,596, depending on what prison they get assigned to.
But allocating more money to public safety has proven difficult, said Sen. Paul Campbell, who serves on the Senate’s budget-writing panel.
“No matter how you want to break it down, you have an infinite need and a finite amount of resources,” said Campbell, R-Berkeley.