Politics & Government

SC's 21 prisons need 600 more guards, don't have money to hire them, director says

Lee Correctional understaffed and officers underpaid during riot

Correctional officers at Lee Correctional Institution make up to $1,600 less than the national average. Their low pay is tied to high turnover and a high number of vacancies at the institution and throughout South Carolina Department of Corrections.
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Correctional officers at Lee Correctional Institution make up to $1,600 less than the national average. Their low pay is tied to high turnover and a high number of vacancies at the institution and throughout South Carolina Department of Corrections.

South Carolina's 21 prisons have more than 600 vacancies for prison guards but really could use 1,000 more, Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling told a legislative panel Thursday.

But the prison system can afford to hire only about 285 new officers, Stirling said. He added the extra manpower is needed to boost employee morale at S.C. prisons, which have faced scrutiny after a recent riot left seven inmates dead.

"Our employees are stretched," Stirling said of the 3,000 officers under his command. "For the better part of this decade, we've been losing employees left and right."

Stirling's testimony came as a group of state senators Thursday kicked off a series of hearings into the prison system's problems — from understaffing and low pay for prison guards to the near-constant flow of contraband into prisoners' hands.

The Corrections Department is under renewed public scrutiny after seven inmates were stabbed to death and 22 more were injured in a mid-April riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.

Cellphone video captures inmates holding shanks on a blood-covered prison floor during the violent riot that left seven inmates dead inside Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, SC on Monday, April 16.

“In South Carolina, we do not desire to be on national news and in the media with the greatest disturbance, as we’ve seen at Lee Correctional," said state Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, the Senate panel's chairman.

Stirling, who oversees 21 prisons with more than 19,000 inmates, testified Thursday that recruiting officers has been a struggle since he was named prisons director in 2013.

When Stirling arrived at the department, corrections officers were paid just $26,826 a year. Now, they are paid an average of $33,289 a year, and S.C. lawmakers have included money in next year's proposed state budget to raise the annual salaries of guards by $1,000.

Still, morale is low in some areas, Stirling said, adding, until recently, the agency has lost about 150 employees each year.

The Corrections Department is trying to boost morale where it can, Stirling said. For example, it is buying new boots for officers and is considering purchasing new uniforms. It also is offering leadership training, adopted a looser grooming policy to allow facial hair and fingernail policy and created awards for stellar employees.

But those measures are no substitute for more hiring, he said.

“The biggest thing that’s going to boost morale is more officers," Stirling said. "You’ve got someone that’s there. You’ve got someone that’s got your back.”

Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster signed an executive order allowing Stirling to use money budgeted for vacant positions to increase the pay of some corrections officers and raise starting salaries. McMaster's order, an effort to fill vacant positions for guards, also removed rules that kept some jail staff from earning overtime.

State Sen. Rex Rice, R-Pickens, said the subcommittee would travel across the state to hear from S.C. residents, and to meet face-to-face with guards and inmates.

Seven inmates were killed during fights that lasted more than seven hours at Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville, SC.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.
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