Crime & Courts

Report: ‘Crisis levels’ of staffing at several prisons must be addressed

(From the left) John Tely King, Jason Howard Kelley, Jimmy Ham and William Bradley Scruggs were found dead inside a dorm at Kirland Correctional Institution.
(From the left) John Tely King, Jason Howard Kelley, Jimmy Ham and William Bradley Scruggs were found dead inside a dorm at Kirland Correctional Institution.

Staffing issues in all areas plague the S.C. Department of Corrections, according to a newly released report that tracks the agency’s compliance with a mental health lawsuit settlement.

Parts of the report were obtained by The State newspaper on Wednesday as the agency’s director, Bryan Stirling, prepares to go before a Senate panel on Thursday to discuss two major episodes in as many weeks that involved the killing of four inmates, allegedly at the hands of two others, in a unit that treats the mentally ill, and an incident in which inmates took control of a prison dorm.

An “implementation panel” issues the report three times a year as part of a 2016 settlement agreement in a 2005 mental health lawsuit involving the treatment of prisoners who are mentally ill. The report’s executive summary lauds the agency’s progress in some areas, while sounding the alarm on staffing levels.

Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville – among five prisons the panel visited between Feb. 27 and March 3 – was found to be at a “severe crisis level that requires immediate correction,” according to the summary.

“Not only are the staffing levels for clinicians, as well as operations staff, unacceptably low, preventing the implementation of effective treatment measures, but also the operations facility has experienced frequent lockdowns since at least February 2016 and has been unable to provide adequate recreation or showers,” the summary said. “These severe shortages of operations staff directly impact access to mental health care and services.”

The summary goes on to say the shortages contribute to the “harm and dangerous conditions for inmates and staff.” It also mentions Perry Correctional Institution in Anderson County as having “crisis levels” of operations staffing, though it was not listed as a site visited in the panel’s recent trip.

When reached by phone, Emmitt Sparkman, who serves on the panel, said the agency has worked hard at changing its policies, hiring procedures and developing training programs. Sparkman retired from the Mississippi Department of Corrections and provides consulting work nationwide.

“To me, the biggest challenge they’re facing right now is the staffing in all areas,” Sparkman said. “I think Director Stirling is working toward that. I think he’s made some progress.”

Legislator to propose task force

Stirling has been raising concerns about staffing for some time, asking the S.C. Legislature for a $3,000 raise over a two-year period to help bump officers’ starting salaries range to between $30,263 and $33,596, depending on the facility to which they are assigned.

But Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said the General Assembly does not fund law enforcement or mental health appropriately, which has contributed to the corrections department’s issues.

“They’re doing a job that they’re really not trained to do because they are not a mental health facility; they are a corrections facility,” Shealy said. “I don’t put all the blame on the Department of Corrections. I put it on the backs of the state for not funding mental health.”

Shealy is among more than a dozen legislators who Stirling will go before Thursday. Several said they look forward to hearing more about what can be done to prevent future tragic incidents.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said the hearing will be an “information gathering session” for him.

“What I’m looking to hear is just more information on what has happened with the various incidents,” Massey said. “But I do think it’s important that we ask questions about what’s going on and see if there’s something we can do to help prevent these things from happening again.”

Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, said he plans to propose Thursday the creation of a legislative task force that will explore the corrections department’s morale and staffing issues. He said that considering the issues he has seen at other state prisons, the agency’s recent incidents did not surprise him.

The strangulations of four inmates happened at Kirkland Correctional Institution near Columbia’s Harbison area, while the dorm takeover took place at Kershaw Correctional Institution in Lancaster County.

“We’ve seen it coming,” Allen said. “Now it’s here. And so now we have to deal with it.”

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