Opinion Extra

Understaffing led to the Lee prison riot, but simply staffing up isn’t the solution

If South Carolinians have learned anything from the deadliest prison riot in the United States since 1993, it is that our state prisons are woefully understaffed. Yes, access to contraband cell phones and gang activity are dangerous, but this problem is not unique to our state.

No one disputes that prisons would be safer if the Corrections Department were able to fill the more than 600 vacant correctional officer positions the Legislature has approved.

The tragedy at Lee, however, also raises fundamental questions about the how the correctional officer shortage affects inmate rehabilitation programs and the state’s prison population.

Faced with overflowing prisons and spiraling budgetary demands in 2010, the Legislature approved measures to reduce the inmate population. The Corrections Department closed six prisons and saved half a billion dollars of taxpayer’s money, shortening sentences for non-violent crimes and increasing the use of community supervision as an alternative to incarceration for certain low-risk offenders.

At the same time the state was reducing the number of inmates, however, the number of correctional officers was dropping even more. From 2011 to 2017, as the inmate population fell by 12 percent, correctional staff fell by 30 percent.

Stuart Andrews
Shirene Hansotia


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The shortage of correctional officers continues to have far-reaching consequences. Not only has access to prison programs been reduced, but the lack of officers also has exacerbated an already-critical gap in the treatment of mentally ill inmates. A panel of experts monitoring agency’s compliance with a 2015 legal settlement on behalf of seriously mentally ill inmates found that the staffing shortage caused many inmates to go without necessary treatments.

The governor’s recent authorization to increase staff salaries is an encouraging step toward addressing the chronic staffing shortage. This measure alone, however, by no means ensures that the gap can be closed enough to substantially reduce further security threats.

Without adequate staffing, prisons are also unable to provide rehabilitative programs, a generally recognized strategy for managing prisons. A large body of research has demonstrated that prison educational and vocational programs are not only an effective and humane method to rehabilitate inmates; they also have proven to promote safety behind the prison walls as well as in communities after re-entry.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that, on average, inmates who participated in educational programs were 43 percent less likely to commit another crime after release. Rand also found that inmates who participated in vocational programs had 28 percent greater likelihood of finding employment.

Experts agree that in addition to providing rehabilitative programs, the best way to improve safety is to reduce prison populations as correctional staff is reduced. The most effective way to do this in a safe and rational manner is by accelerating the rate of parole for inmates who have demonstrated they are prepared to become law-abiding citizens.

Parole is intended to reward good behavior and to help control a prison population. In South Carolina, our parole board is doing neither. According to Pew Research Center, our state parole board has one of the lowest parole release records in the nation, at 7 percent. Prison experts know that when inmates are given hope, incentive-based programs to manage their behavior and constructive ways to occupy their time, lives change, and prison cultures change.

In March, H.5155 was introduced in the S.C. House to further reform the state’s sentencing laws and parole process. This fix, however, does not go far enough. The bill substantially increases the number of individuals eligible for parole, but does little to affect the standards by which parole is determined. Without that critical component, parole eligibility would be little more than a cruel hoax.

Denying inmates a meaningful opportunity for parole doesn’t just deprive them of hope and the motivation to change while behind bars. It also dis-serves taxpayers by driving up the cost of correctional budgets to unsustainable levels to house, feed and care for men and women who, having paid their debts to society and demonstrated their ability to be responsible citizens, are ready to return home.

Mr. Andrews was one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit challenging the Corrections Department’s treatment of mentally ill inmates; Ms. Hansotia is a former Charleston County public defender. Contact them at stuart.andrews@nelsonmullins.com or logan6371@gmail.com.