More from the series
SC Prisons In Crisis
It’s been one year since one of the nation’s deadliest prison riots erupted in South Carolina. Is there hope for the state’s violent, gang-controlled prisons?
SC inmate’s baby died in toilet: Lawsuits allege rampant medical neglect in prisons
Should prison be a death sentence? SC inmates say they fight for survival among gang violence
Facing dire challenges, can SCDC get ambivalent State House to throw it a lifeline?
Corrupt guards run amok at understaffed, underfunded SC prisons
After JaBari Moore was stabbed during a 2017 robbery in his cell at a S.C. prison, he couldn’t find a single correctional officer on the wing to help him, he said.
Bleeding from wounds to his chest and liver, Moore staggered from his cell to the booth where guards who were supposed to be monitoring his dorm were sitting. He knocked on the window, trying to get their attention.
“They didn’t even look. They just opened the door to go out of the dorm,” Moore said.
Unaccompanied by a guard, Moore said he began the walk across Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville to get to the prison’s medical wing.
“I was assessing my injury, watching for the guy who stabbed me and thinking that I could not die yet,” Moore said. “...This was the most traumatic experience of my life.”
On top of the trauma of being stabbed over a reading lamp, Moore said the indifference of the correctional officers in the booth — and the guards he’s encountered at various facilities in South Carolina — has been an unsettling experience. And he is not the only one making the claim.
“We are not people in here,” Moore said, who has filed a lawsuit against the S.C. Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s 21 prisons. The department does not comment on litigation.
Despite millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent in the past year to increase safety in prisons and lessen contraband, bad prison guards — some corrupt, some indifferent, some sympathetic to gangs or in gangs themselves — are working to ensure the efforts fall flat, say more than 60 former and current inmates interviewed by The State Media Co. and their advocates.
The consequence of bad guards reaches beyond prison walls too. During the last four fiscal years, brutality cases filed against the S.C. Department of Corrections cost the state more than $2.5 million in lawsuit losses and expenses, according to the Insurance Reserve Fund.
“We have been dehumanized and the guards desensitized,” Moore said. “They could (not) care less about our plight or else they would have stood against the injustice done to us.”
SCDC officials disagree, saying the majority of its officers are competent professionals and those who are not are increasingly being held accountable.
“A good correctional officer is just as mad as I am about someone who is corrupt,” said Bryan Stirling, director of the Department of Corrections.
‘Being dirty, there’s a lot of money’
In the wake of last year’s deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institute that left seven inmates dead , SCDC has spent more than $8.5 million installing 50-foot-tall netting, similar to that seen at golf courses, to prevent drugs and phones from being launched over prison fences. Another $240,000 has paid for technology to alert prison officials when drones are operating in the area for the purpose of delivering contraband to inmates.
Additionally, inmates spent the better part of 2018 confined to individual cells with few ways to communicate or come in contact with each other.
And yet, tobacco, phones, drugs and even knives are still steadily flowing into prisons because of corrupt guards, according to 16 inmates interviewed by The State, lawyers and lawsuits.
Guards often get entangled in the contraband industry for the money, something they may sorely need, said Stan Burtt, a former warden at Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County.
“Being dirty, there’s a lot of money,” said Burtt, who worked at SCDC for more than 20 years. “If your security is poor, your chances of (not) getting caught are good. So, you’ve got higher money and lower risk. That’s a better business deal.”
For example, when a Department of Corrections employee was caught allegedly trying to smuggle marijuana, a power tool and other contraband into Lieber Correctional in March, he told investigators he “needed the money.”
The starting salary for a correctional officer ranges from about $32,000 to about $35,000, according to an SCDC posting. Cadets — or employees under the age of 21 — start between about $29,000 and $30,000. Since state officials approved overtime pay in 2018, the average officer can now make about $39,000 a year, SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said.
Though correctional officer pay has significantly increased under Stirling — including raises, bonuses and granting access to overtime —officers at county jails often make more. For example, a job posting for a Lexington County correctional officer listed a salary falling between $36,891 and $39,842 a year.
Cellphones alone can bring in about $800 — and sometimes up to $1,000, according to inmates who spoke to The State — so, by bringing in 44 contraband items a year, guards can more than double their salaries.
The department is cracking down on rule-breaking guards.
Since 2015, SCDC has brought 50 charges against its own employees for bringing in contraband to inmates, from illicit drugs to chicken wings, according to arrest warrants provided by SCDC. Since April 2018, 32 SCDC employees were arrested by department investigators, 13 of which were charged with smuggling contraband, according to SCDC records. Another was charged with criminal conspiracy for working with an inmate to bring in contraband, according to her arrest warrant.
But it’s not just correctional officers bringing in contraband, Stirling said. Officials must keep an eye on medical personnel, visitors, other staff and even members of the clergy.
“There’s not an exclusivity for people trying to bring in contraband for whatever reason,” Stirling said.
Burtt, who retired from the department in 2008, said guards smuggling contraband is hardly a new issue, but understaffing and poor security has likely exacerbated the problem since he left the prison system.
“Think of yourself. A lot of those wing officers are female and they’re young. You have a young female on a wing with 250 guys,” Burtt said. “How does she keep control? She’s not going to do it physically, she’s just not. … You are utterly dependent on them being cooperative with you.”
Two lawsuits filed against SCDC allege its employees use contraband as a form of pacification for the inmates. The lawsuits both say that guards were “purposely lenient” when searching for contraband to help keep inmates calm “in the face of severe understaffing.”
Other reports suggest that guards are just too busy to take time to properly search for contraband, thanks to the chronic understaffing crisis. This year alone, the department faces 685 vacancies in security positions, but other reports have suggested SCDC needs to hire at least 2,000 additional front-line officers. While SCDC has struggled to fill them and has asked for money for raises in this year’s budget, the legislature seems unlikely to award it, cutting the funds completely out of the House budget.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
Why did we report this story?
After the deadly riot at Lee Correctional in April 2018, many were left with questions. How could this happen in South Carolina? Is there anything that could have been done to prevent this? Could this happen again? We set out to answer those questions and others we had about just what is going on behind the walls in S.C.’s prisons.
How did we report this story?
The State began by reviewing all publicly available wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits filed in local courts against the Department of Corrections. After speaking with lawyers who filed the suits, reporter Emily Bohatch engaged in a letter writing campaign with more than 60 inmates across South Carolina to see if their experiences reflected those expressed in the lawsuits.
Why were some of the inmates included in the stories not named?
With an anti-”snitching” culture enveloping South Carolina’s prisons, many inmates explained to Bohatch that talking to the newspaper could result in retaliation from both correctional officers and fellow inmates. Lawyers have told The State that articles written about their clients’ lawsuits have resulted in attacks against them in the past.
In a report commissioned by the department, security expert and former Illinois prison administrator Tom Roth said security staff are often assigned to more than one post during a shift. In one instance, a guard was assigned to four separate posts, Roth wrote.
Being stretched thin across an institution impacts their abilities to do cell checks, pat downs and searches for contraband, Roth wrote.
“There is simply not enough security staff assigned to effectively meet the established responsibility on a consistent basis.” Roth wrote.
In addition, Roth reported that in some institutions, no guards were posted at kitchen or loading dock locations. Last year, investigators found that smugglers were using shipments from SCDC’s farms and dairy to bring contraband into other institutions. Now, all loading or unloading is taken care of by officers, officials said.
The Department of Corrections recently installed $2 million in technology to help combat this issue, Stirling said. New full-body scanners, similar to what is used in airports, let prison officials check to see if correctional officers are ferrying contraband on or, in some cases, inside their person, he said. The scanners became operational in early April.
But, those methods may not be fool-proof forever, he said.
“...When we put the scanners in, they’re always going to try (to smuggle contraband),” Stirling said. “That’s just the nature of prisons.”
The department was also authorized to double the number of their Police Services investigators, who will join the department’s in-house police force in investigating crimes in prisons, Stirling said. Facing arrest, Stirling believes, is the greatest deterrent to those seeking to bring in contraband.
“Potentially going to prison for your actions for $10,000 a year, I don’t know what else could be more of a wake up call,” Stirling said. “We are paying more — a lot more — so I think that, ‘Oh, we’re not getting paid enough,’ ... I’m not sure that’s a legitimate excuse for the behavior.”
But inmates maintain that plenty of guards continue to fly under Police Service’s radar.
”There’s laws. We broke them and came to prison,” inmate James Abernathy said. “So why are the people who are put over us to enforce the law breaking them and not being punished? For money, people have been known to sell their souls.”
Some guards depend on gangs
As the department struggles to hire enough security staff, prevalent gangs both inside and outside of prisons are taking advantage, according to inmates and lawyers.
Charleston lawyer Warren Lokey, who often represents inmates in cases against SCDC, said gang members have been using the lower hiring standard to install friendly operatives on the inside.
“They send in a girlfriend or a friend that’s a girl of the gang members and they tell her to apply for a job,” Lokey said. “She applies for the job and starts smuggling in contraband and communicating between the outside and the inside.”
State Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, echoed this accusation in an interview with The State.
“When you’ve become so desperate for help, sometimes gang members plant people, because all that’s really needed is a high school education and a clean record,” Lowe said. “If you say, ‘I want to be a guard,’ and you’ve got those two things going for you, you’re probably going to get hired.”
Stirling said, while the department’s hiring process doesn’t always catch bad actors, the department tries to examine applicants as well as they can using background checks, drug tests and by weeding them out during training.
“We try to vet them as best we can,” Stirling said. “That can happen.”
Six inmates, parents, former employees and lawsuits indicated first hand knowledge that some guards employed by the SCDC are gang affiliated. Fourteen others said that, though they may not be full fledged members, some guards are either complicit with gang activity or allow it under their watch.
Since 2015, 16 guards have been charged with conspiracies involving inmates, though their arrest warrants do not mention specifically whether the crimes included gangs.
Three lawsuits filed against SCDC said guards engage in a “conspiracy” to allow or to help certain inmates to smuggle contraband or attack others.
“Supervision was so deficient at the facility that guards were allowed to assist inmates with illegal activities in exchange for payment,” the lawsuits read.
One of the lawsuits cited a case in which a guard pleaded the Fifth Amendment when asked if she took payments to look the other way when inmates wanted to do something illegal.
In some cases, gangs even ask guard to leave the room. Georgetown lawyer Ed Bell said these cases are the most common his practice sees.
“We know that, sometimes, the guards are in on what’s about to happen either through a threat or some kind of complicity,” Bell said. “We know that’s true.”
Ten inmates and lawsuits claimed guards condoned or actively encouraged violence in S.C. prisons. In 14 cases, guards did this through a process known as “popping,” which is what inmates call instances of officers opening up locked cell doors for other inmates.
In one case, a guard allegedly let another inmate into a cell during a lockdown, according to a lawsuit. That inmate stabbed another multiple times with a broken broom handle, and when he was done, the guard allegedly unlocked the door again to let him out.
At least two correctional officers arrested since 2015 practiced “popping,” according to arrest warrants provided by the Department of Corrections.
In 2017, one guard was accused of opening cells doors at Kirkland Correctional Institution so inmates could fight each other, according to his arrest warrant. As the fights began, the guard allegedly acted as a referee.
Earlier that year, another guard was charged after investigators say he unlocked a cell door inside Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia as part of a murder scheme, according to his warrant. He allowed two inmates out of their cells during a lockdown to stab a third.
Department of Corrections officials said they do not know about “popping.”
Other times, guards merely ignore warning signs that preclude violent incidents, inmates say..
The first time one inmate walked into Broad River Correctional Institution, he said he knew “what hell looked like.”
“I remember walking to the stairs, and as I get to the stairs, I lock eyes with this guy sharpening a knife,” inmate DeMichael Razor said. “My heart dropped.”
For that inmate, and others who described extremely similar situations to The State, that sight and the indifference of the correctional officers in the wing are common occurences inside state prisons.
While prisons across the state were placed under a lockdown after the deadly riot at Lee Correctional, guards allowed gang members out of their cells, seven inmates who claim to have seen it first hand told The State. During those times and other incidents, gang members openly smoked contraband tobacco or marijuana and used cell phones in front of the correctional officers, the inmates said.
Though corrupt guards aren’t always given money to look the other way, they are often granted some sort of protection from potentially dangerous conditions inside of the understaffed prisons, former warden Burtt said.
“Like it or not, that staff has probably, in some odd ways, depended on the gangs,” Burtt said. “They’re probably dependent on strong inmate groups or the lockdown. … People have gone to the gangs for protection or whatever. That’s because there are no staff.”
Beatings and assaults
Though they are sometimes complicit in the violence, some guards actively participate in physical beatings or sexual assaults of inmates, according to about 40 inmates and lawsuits.
“Some (correctional officers) come in your room and beat you until you are out of air just for asking them to let us having some fresh air and raising our voice on them,” inmate Van Bik said.
Since 2015, six correctional officers have been charged with assault and battery, two with attempted murder and two with accessory by SCDC’s Police Services. Another was charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law after an FBI investigation found he allegedly stabbed an inmate multiple times at Kirkland Correctional Institution.
In one case, inmate Matthew Thomas was told he was going to be moved into a dorm known for being dangerous, and, as a protest, he refused to leave a holding cell, according to a lawsuit. A guard allegedly held his eye open so another could spray “chemical munitions” directly into it.
Another inmate, Garcia Wilson, reported being taken out of a meeting with his lawyer and slammed into a wall and stripped of his clothing, according to a lawsuit. The officer allegedly told him he needed to “stop playing.”
During the last four fiscal years, brutality cases against the S.C. Department of Corrections cost the state more than $2.5 million in losses and expenses, according to the Insurance Reserve Fund.
Nine inmates told The State they had either been sexually assaulted by guards or knew someone who engaged in sex with guards though prisoners cannot consent. Sine 2015, 10 correctional officers have been charged with sexually assaulting inmates in South Carolina facilities.
One former officer said SCDC “permitted an atmosphere of sexual intimidation, sexual harassment, sexual batteries, sexual permissiveness and sexual favoritism among supervisory personnel and other employees and inmates,” in a lawsuit filed against the department in 2014.
Another guard was accused of sexually assaulting at least seven women, but still allowed to work at a women’s prison, according to a lawsuit alleging even more sexual abuse. The guard allegedly used contraband to ask for sexual favors from inmates and would follow them as they exercised and sexually heckle them.
Sexual assault lawsuits against the department cost the state about $172,000 during the last four fiscal years, according to the Insurance Reserve Fund.
Alone and Afraid
Though not all guards are abusive, negligent or corrupt, many do share one commonality: they are afraid, according to inmates, lawyers and advocates.
According to Roth’s report, two guards are often facing down an entire housing unit of 250 inmates in some prisons, an adjustment that could be “leading to potentially dangerous situations.” At maximum security facilities like Broad River Correctional, one guard sometimes has to care for an entire unit, according to the report.
Of the more than 120 lawsuits examined by The State, 42 said there were even times where no guard was present in the dorm.
“It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to hire a bunch of people if they’re scared,” Georgetown lawyer C. Carter Elliott said. “Quite frankly, I’ve talked to a lot of these guards recently, and they’re scared.”
Even the Department of Corrections said in a 2018 report that they were not operating with enough staff to reach “safe-levels.”
While testifying in front of the Legislative Oversight Committee, Stirling said that correctional officers leaving the department often site fears about security during their exit interviews. Most officers aren’t staying more than a year, and for every guard they hire, one leaves, Stirling testified.
“We always need to create a safe environment for our employees, not just for our correctional officers, and for the folks incarcerated here,” Stirling said in an interview with The State.
A guard can face down an entire unit of maximum security prisoners if he decides to remove something important from the dorm, such as a cell phone, one inmate said.
During the last four fiscal years, serious assaults on SCDC employees has nearly quadrupled, according to statistics from the department. During the last fiscal year, the department paid out nearly $6.1 million in workers compensation premiums.
Correctional officers must also often stand witness to stabbings and assaults. Sometimes, guards even run from confrontations in their dorms, according to 13 inmates and lawsuits.
“If two inmates get into an altercation, the officers are told to secure the wing and wait for first response,” an inmate at a medium security prison said. “But, if I’m getting stabbed or jumped, I need assistance then. I’ve seen brothers die back here for nothing that perhaps could have been saved if the SCDC employee had done their true job, which is to serve and protect. Do you know what it’s like to watch a brother, a friend, a comrade take their last breath?”
The inmate asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Stirling said the department is working to create a safer environment for employees by trying to modernize South Carolina’s prisons. Keeping inmates occupied with tablets filled with educational material and programs and hiring more officers are part of the department’s current initiatives.
The understaffing and the fear of causing an incident that they cannot control has contributed to the violent culture inside of the state’s prisons, according to Roth’s report.
“Having a total of two staff assigned to a 250-bed unit housing maximum custody inmates … creates an environment where the perceived opportunity to commit an assault, if interested, can initially go undetected,” Roth wrote.
That’s one of the first things Bell considers when taking a case against the Department of Corrections, he said.
“Very seldom do these attacks occur with the guard there,” Bell said. “Most of the time, there is a temporal relationship between when the guard leaves and when the attack occurs.”
Along with leaving the wing entirely, some guards do not perform cell-checks, designed to make sure all inmates are accounted for and not in any illicit situations, 40 lawsuits said.
If an inmate is attacked in his cell, it could take hours for a guard to find them if there isn’t one in the vicinity.
“Whenever someone is hollering help from getting stabbed by their roommate, here’s when you thank God for cellular phones because none of the officers are making their security checks,” inmate Ronnie Wilson said.
Of course, many officers are not part of the problem, Stirling said.
“We have some very hard working officers who I think don’t get the credit publicly that they need because anytime there is something bad happening in a facility, all people read about are the bad things or the arrests,” he said. “We have some officers who do some tremendous things who are here because their hearts are in the right place.”