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Facing dire challenges, can SCDC get ambivalent State House to throw it a lifeline?

After years of plummeting staffing levels and lowest-in-the-nation funding, can the South Carolina Department of Corrections turn things around?

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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?

A month before one of America’s deadliest prison riots erupted in South Carolina, officials were told how to solve many of the prison system’s woes.

The number of security officers at 13 South Carolina prisons — including Lee Correctional Institution, where the riot would soon erupt — should be doubled to about 2,000, said former Illinois Prison Administrator Tom Roth. A consultant for the S.C. Department of Corrections, Roth spent months studying about half of the state’s woefully understaffed prisons. His recommendation did not even consider SCDC’s other eight prisons.

“There is simply not enough security staff assigned to effectively meet the established responsibility on a consistent basis,” Roth wrote in his 2018 report. Little did anyone know that just a few weeks later, seven inmates would be stabbed to death with improvised weapons and 22 more injured at Lee Correctional in Bishopville. As inmates assaulted one another, outnumbered guards, armed only with pepper spray, backed out and waited for help.

Understaffing is a long-standing problem in the state’ prison, say SCDC leaders and Roth. From providing medical care to mitigating violence to rehabilitating inmates inside prisons, the staffing crisis is a weight around the department’s ankles, resulting in high staff turnover and a dangerous work environment for those who remain on the job.

Last month, for example, an employee at Ridgeland Correctional Institutuion in Jasper County reported being sexually assaulted by an inmate.

But the staffing shortage has gotten worse in the past three years, Roth said, resulting in more assaults on inmates and officers. Lee, for example, was down about 100 officers from six years earlier, Roth found at the time of his report.

Today, the shortage is even more dire with 685 security staff vacancies compared to the 600 the Department of Corrections struggled to fill while Roth evaluated them.

One possible result of the shortage: inmates were allowed to slaughter each other for nearly seven hours at Lee Correctional while the department waited for help to arrive.

“If there was any other state agency who faced a continual staffing shortfall like the Department of Corrections has faced, (the legislature) would have addressed it years ago. But they haven’t,” said former SCDC director Jon Ozmint. Now practicing law privately, Ozmint works with inmates on their parole hearings.

Lee Correctional institution was the site of the deadliest U.S. prison riot in a quarter century. Tim Dominick tdominick@thestate.com

How did prisons get in this shape?

When Stan Burtt started as a correctional officer at the Department of Corrections in 1985, the department struggled to fill vacancies, but not nearly as bad as today. As he worked his way up to becoming a warden, the department made a stark change.

In a bid to save money, the Department of Corrections transitioned to a policy of minimum staffing , an approach that allowed “no room for error,” said Burtt, who retired in 2008. The department began operating with exactly the number of correctional officers that officials believed they needed.

At Kershaw Correctional Institution in Lancaster County, where Burtt was serving as the social warden, 40 unfilled positions were cut in the late 90s.

“As soon as we lost those 40 positions … we started dropping below that,” Burtt said.

In the 1990s, a national trend emerged of cutting money for prisons and “(stripping departments of) corrections and inmates of everything,” said Bryan Stirling, who was appointed director of the S.C. department in 2013. From mental health treatment to security staffing, the ripples of those decisions are still felt today, he said.

Dorms of 250 inmates, once patrolled by as many as four officers, are now patrolled by just one or two, according to Roth’s report.

“They never recovered and they’re not likely to recover, because even if they bring staff up to minimum staffing, the first time somebody quits … you’re going to be short all the time,” Burtt said. “It’s just not a workable system.”

Stirling has lobbied lawmakers to improve staff retention, including raising officers’ salaries. When he transitioned from then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief of staff to SCDC director, officers were making an average of $27,000 with no option for paid overtime. The rate had been the same for about a decade, Stirling said.

“On the weekends, I would go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and I got sick and tired of seeing my staff working there to make ends meet, so I came back and said ‘We’ve got to incentivise them to come to work,’ and overtime was part of it ...,” Stirling said.

Stirling worked his connections with Haley and Gov. Henry McMaster to steadily win over increases in officer salaries, raising starting pay to about about $30,000 and gaining approval for overtime pay for officers.

“It’s always good when you can go to the governor and say, ‘Here’s my plan, here’s what I need,’ and they have a history with you,” Stirling said.

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Bryan Stirling and Gov. Henry McMaster at a 2018 press conference. Meg Kinnard AP

Once raises went into effect, the department’s decade-long trend of losing more than 200 employees each year slowed to a trickle, Stirling said. The agency even saw a slight jump in staffing in 2018, but was down nearly 40 positions by the early months of this year.

“Think about it, if we didn’t get those raises ... we would be down significantly more officers,” Stirling said.

Despite raises and other monetary incentives, the department still struggles to meet its basic goal of rehabilitation because of the staffing shortage. Though Stirling has championed several new programs, inmates often cannot attend because no officers are available to escort them to class or watch them during the programming.

As a result, 21 inmates told The State Media Co. in late 2018 that they were either not offered classes or training or could not get to them.

“There’s a reason why many of us come back,” said Turbeville Correctional Institution inmate James John Abernathy.. “We didn’t get no help while we were here.”

Rev. Chuck Pollak, who served as a chaplain at Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County for 11 years, taught classes about life skills , including resume writing and navigating family dynamics after prison release.

Classes typically started with 50 to 60 inmates, Pollak said. By the fifth or sixth course, attendance was down to 30. By the end, eight to 10 students would be left.

“It wasn’t because they didn’t want to come,” Pollak said. “It was because they were not given the opportunity.”

Director of the ACLU of South Carolina Shaundra Scott has called for more funding for teachers and programs so inmates could leave prison with skills to get their lives restarted. “If we just let people out without anything, they’re just going to revert back to the thing that they know to make money, which brings danger to everybody,” Scott said.

SCDC touts its many new programs started in recent years, becoming the second prison system in the nation to adopt the Vera Institute of Justice’s Promise initiative that rehabilitates inmates through mentorship and classes.

Setting the budget

Stirling said he took into account the deadly prison riot and other violent incidents when making this year’s budget request to lawmakers.

But the General Assembly appears unwilling to listen.

House lawmakers recently denied a budget request for more than $6 million that Stirling and McMaster wanted for prison officer recruitment, hiring and retention.

And in the wake of the riot at Lee Correctional last year, the two asked for $40 million for security and facility upgrades, including automatic locks for cell doors — a basic safety feature. Again, the legislature slashed that number, only including $10 million.

This year is not the Department of Corrections’ year, said Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, who leads the House’s Criminal Justice budgetary committee. Despite an extra $1 billion for the budget this year and being surprised with $61 million after a Mega Millions lottery winner claimed her prize, many of the security upgrades are unlikely to be funded.

“They asked for a big ask on that,” Lowe said.

“We just kinda had a lot of education in this budget this year,” he added, referring to House leaders’ priority of overhauling public education.

Though South Carolina has teetered on the brink of a teaching crisis for years, former director Ozmint said putting more money toward a system they’ve been trying to fund for years may be a waste, calling the education budget “the most bloated, fat, ridiculously out-of-control system in this state.”

Jon Ozmint

“Throw more money at education and continue to starve corrections,” Ozmint said. “That’s their plan.”

South Carolina has historically spent less per inmate than other states, according to the Southern Legislative Conference, jockeying with Louisiana, Alabama and Oklahoma for lowest rankings in the country.

South Carolina spent about $15,900 per inmate in 2017 while North Carolina and Florida spent about $32,600 and $20,400 respectively.

Ozmint says the state funds the Department of Corrections “so lowly that they can’t possibly succeed.”

“You need to fund the agency at a level that takes them out of the bottom 10 in terms of funding in the nation,” Ozmint said. “You need to give them enough money to fix their fences and their fiscal plans and their infrastructure. You need to fund them enough to fully staff them. You need to let them fix their infrastructure.”

“And then you need to give them enough money to feed and provide health care for inmates at a reasonable level. None of those four things have they ever done,” said Ozmint, who, in an effort to run SC prisons on scant dollars, set up prison farms a decade ago where prisoners produced eggs, milk and grits for the state’s 24,000 inmates.

Ozmint described the prison system like a house with a rotting or broken foundation. Until the foundation — staffing and funding — get fixed, working on other issues are like replacing broken window panes.

The S.C. Department of Corrections farm, shown July 26, produces milk, eggs and grits served daily to the department’s 20,000 inmates. With the opening of the new dairy farm, the milking herd would grow from 220 to 1,000 cows, generating 1.8 million gallons of excess milk that will be sold on the open market. The State

Lowe said part of the reason Corrections gets less attention than education is because of their lack of advocates.

“I think the Department of Corrections is not a glamorous thing,” Lowe said. “They don’t have a lot of advocates, and that probably hurts them up here (at the State House) in the budget process because they’re not heard. ...There’s not enough people in the lobby saying things. Not enough people sending emails and letters and saying, ‘Let’s treat them better,’ or ‘Let’s take care of our correctional officers better.’”

“There are a lot of other areas that complain loudly,” Lowe added.

With 685 funded vacancies in March, raises, bonuses and overtime can serve as important factors for SCDC employees considering their options, Stirling said. Now, the department uses them, along with leadership training and new boots and uniforms to keep the ever fluctuating staff they currently have.

But, right now, for every security officer they hire, another one leaves the department, Stirling testified to a House Legislative Oversight Committee in February.

“That goes at our safety and security of our institutions,” Stirling testified.

The $6 million in the governor’s budget was supposed to go towards a $1,000 raise for just SCDC employees, Stirling said. In addition, Stirling was hoping to focus on raising the salaries of medical positions, which he won’t be able to do without that money, he said.

“We need money to be competitive, because if you don’t have medical staff, you have to transport out,” Stirling said, referring to the practice of guards driving inmates to doctor’s appointment on the outside. Two officers must accompany the inmate “and that decreases the number of officers at the institution,” he said.

While it doesn’t address the inequities in medical pay, the legislature is mulling a 2 percent raise for all state employees. That would mean about a $700 raise for the average officer — close to Stirling’s ask.

“They’re kind of skinning that cat a different way,” he said. “... I don’t want to sugar coat it either. We need help. We need more officers.”

Ozmint said small raises and bonuses given out by the legislature to the Department of Corrections in recent years have been “band-aids.”

The former director called for raising officer salaries to a starting $45,000 per year, an increase of about $15,000.

Lowe, on the other hand, thinks no realistic raise could solve the department’s staffing crisis.

“I don’t think it’s a fun job, a highly sought-after job,” Lowe said. “For the money for a high school education, it’s a decent amount of money, but not for the risk you’re under. So, I don’t think that solves it.”

He also pointed to past years raises and how they have yet to solve the department’s chronic staffing issue.

“We’ve chased the dollars in there and tried to give them the raises of the last three or four years, but it’s still not alleviated,” Lowe said.

For example, correctional officers got a $1,000 bonus, and an order from Gov. McMaster gave Stirling the ability to raise pay as he sees fit. Since then, the department has seen 39 more vacancies in security staff positions.

But other states have seen improvements by offering more money to employees. To combat their understaffing issues, West Virginia instituted a $6,000 pay increase over three years, Maryland offered a $5,000 sign-on incentive and Alabama approved a 3 percent pay increase, according to Roth’s report.

“If you never expect our legislature to do the right thing, you’ll never be disappointed in this state,” Ozmint said

Phillip Lowe

Both Lowe and Stirling stressed that South Carolina’s department — like many others in the country — is fighting a good economy and low unemployment. Employees that traditionally may have sought jobs in corrections can now work at places like the Volvo plant in Berkeley County.

Without full funding in the realm of security either, Stirling said the department will have to reconsider some vital improvements SCDC was eyeing for next year, including automatic locks for cell doors that could be controlled from a central area. Right now, correctional officers spend about 80 percent of their day turning physical keys to open and close cell doors, he added.

This practice can be dangerous for officers and inmates alike, Stirling said.

“If I’m the officer and I open cell number 24, and those folks are behind that door and want to go to cell 25, all they have to do is grab the keys from me and they can,” Stirling said.

Additionally, if there is a fire, correctional officers today would have to rush from cell to cell to unlock each door individually so inmates could escape the flames, Stirling said. This was a concern after inmates at Kershaw Correctional Institution began setting fires in late 2018, Stirling said.

If the legislature put enough money in the budget to fund the new locking system, officers could hit a button and all the doors would open in case of a fire.

An additional $10 million that could have gone to security must go to treating SCDC’s inmates for Hepatitis C after a court settlement called for the procedures, Lowe said.

“We kind of had to take $10 million that we would have loved to put towards safety, but we had to spend that on another court decision,” Lowe said.

With only $10 million of the requested $40 million on the table as of March, the Department of Corrections is going to have to make some choices, Lowe said.

“They’re going to decide what they really want to put it towards,” Lowe said. “The ask was a lot bigger than what we could give this year.”

Still, Stirling remains optimistic.

“Anything can happen on the floor,” Stirling said. “Anything can happen in the Senate.”

And McMaster, Stirling’s most high-profile advocate, has pledged to continue to seek money to address security issues.

An SCDC inmate pulls a cart across the yard at Kirkland Correctional Institution Thursday March 14, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Is Stirling qualified?

Though Stirling has proven he can work his connections with the administration to make increases in salaries, former employees and advocates have argued that he isn’t qualified to run the Department of Corrections.

With a background in criminal justice and a history in the Attorney General’s office, naysayers argue that he does not have enough experience in corrections itself.

Former Chaplin Pollak used his background as the head of a nuclear submarine in the Navy as a comparison.

“I think that one of the problems that we’ve got — and this is not unique to our state — but there is a feeling among many people that you can take an intelligent, dedicated person and put him into a significant position like that even though he does not have any experience there,” Pollak said. “Would they have taken someone off the street and put them in charge of a nuclear submarine? The answer is no, they have to be trained for that.”

Burtt, who worked his way up from a correctional officer to the warden of the prison that housed death row, said the department would be better off under a more experienced director. Though Gov. McMaster chose Stirling to continue to serve as director, Burtt said the legislature should speak against that move.

“We just want to put someone in charge of the department that the governor likes, and that seems to be the only criteria that they want,” Burtt said. “That was not them living up to their obligation of advise and consent. At some point, they need to say, ‘Well, we need a professional.’”

Bryan Stirling, the nominee for Department of Corrections director JOHN MONK

Other former employees have accused Stirling of using them as scapegoats. The former warden of Lee Correctional Institution is suing the department and its director, claiming SCDC was trying to “cover up mistakes, errors and negligence on the part of the command structure of SCDC,” that caused the deadly riot at the prison.

Stirling also was at the helm of the department when it was discovered that 10 violent inmates were released from South Carolina prisons years before the end of their sentences. During a legislative hearing, Stirling claimed full culpability for the releases that happened between 2016 and 2018.

McMaster’s spokesman voiced the governors support for the current director, calling him “one of the most innovative and effective corections system leaders in the country.”

Stirling said his years serving as director have made him a qualified candidate, and pointed toward other states headed by residents with diverse backgrounds. Judge Bill Byers, who headed SCDC before Stirling, worked for the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and in family court. Ozmint put in time at the Attorney General’s office.

“Gov. Haley put me in here to make some changes to the system, and I think you’re seeing that with the programing. I think you’re seeing that with some of the security things we’ve done,” Stirling said. “I disagree with them on that.”

Alternative solutions

Solving the staffing problem is a bigger issue than the Department of Corrections itself can handle on its own, Roth wrote in his report. And if increases aren’t going to come from hiring, he suggests that changes need to come from somewhere else: the number of prisoners incarcerated in South Carolina.

“For the department to have any opportunity to meet the staffing levels required to accomplish the established responsibilities of the department, legislative initiative and support is a requisite,” Roth wrote.

As of February 2019, 18,617 people were living in South Carolina prisons, according to an agency report. That number reflects a steady decrease in inmates each year, down from a high of 24,040 in 2010, according to SCDC documents.

“We’re one of the success stories in the country with sentencing reform and with what we’re doing on recidivism,” Stirling said.

Still, the ratio of inmates to correctional officer has not improved much.

“It’s highly improbable that the department is going to hire its way out of the staffing shortage,” Columbia lawyer Stuart Andrews said. “Other states that have encountered this problem, because as you know it’s not unique to us, they’ve concentrated population and expedited the population reduction plans.”

Andrews has spent time working with the Department of Corrections after reaching a settlement over a landmark mental health lawsuit. In recent years, he has advocated Roth’s suggested approach to reaching a better equilibrium in South Carolina’s prisons.

“It is not a result of the department’s unwillingness or inability to perform its functions, but the crisis is affecting its ability to do its job, and it can get a lot worse if something doesn’t change,” Andrews testified in front of a House Legislative Oversight Committee.

As of March, both the House and the Senate were considering bills that would help decrease the prison population. The dueling bills would tackle Truth in Sentencing, which requires some inmates to serve 85 percent of their total sentence, something Ozmint says gives inmates “no hope.”

Lawmakers have struggled over whether the bills should be retroactive, which would decrease the size of the inmate population sooner rather than later.

Though the future of the current prison population is still in the air, Stirling said the department is doing what it can to decrease the number of inmates.

The most direct effect SCDC can have is by working to rehabilitate inmates and decrease the recidivism rate, which is what Stirling focuses on.

In 2017, South Carolina posted the third lowest recidivism rate in the country, according to a study by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“If our recidivism rate, like some other states, was 50 percent, our population would be through the roof,” Stirling said. “But we’re 22.7 percent, one of the lowest in the country.”

Last year, the department was given $1.7 million to expand a re-entry program based at Manning Re-Entry/Work Release Center to all of SCDC’s other facilities. The program is focused on connecting inmates with educational, vocational and life skills classes before they are released.

The department also partnered with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce to get recently released prisoners placed with jobs.

“Who are you going to chose to have to be your neighbor? Are you going to chose someone who can’t get to programs and can’t better themselves while they’re at the Department of Corrections?” Stirling said. “Or are you going to chose someone who has their mental health managed that’s got a future, a job, connection to family? That’s who’d I want as my neighbors.”

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Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.