THERE’S NOTHING new or surprising about violence inside prisons. The people in prisons are, after all, criminals, and increasingly in our state they’re violent criminals. The S.C. Corrections Department reports that at least three of every 100 inmates assault an inmate or guard every year.
But when two prisoners are able to lure four others one by one into a cell and strangle them to death without being detected, that suggests they’re not being watched closely enough. When, just nine days later, inmates at another prison are able to stab one guard and injure two others and take over a prison dorm for several hours, that underscores the same concern: There aren’t enough guards to do the job.
Nearly a third of the positions our tightfisted Legislature has authorized are vacant because the Corrections Department can’t find people to take the embarrassingly underpaid jobs. That suggests this is just the latest example of what happens when two decades of tax cuts meet the reality of a growing state that needs a growing revenue stream to meet even the most basic demands for public safety.
But there’s an important difference. When children under the state’s supervision were dying because the underfunded Department of Social Services wasn’t providing that supervision, the director refused to acknowledge that there were even problems, much less that her bad policy decisions had compounded them. Ditto when juvenile prisoners were escaping, rioting and dying at the Department of Juvenile Justice.
At this point, we’ve seen nothing at the Corrections Department to suggest that management is the problem, at least not in a significant way. Director Bryan Stirling has impressed people across the political spectrum with his competence and his approach to corrections — most notably but not exclusively his decision to admit that the department had violated the rights of mentally ill inmates. As a result, he settled a lawsuit that the agency had spent far too many years and too much tax money fighting.
What we have seen at the Corrections Department is a culture that is slow to adapt to the idea that it has to treat inmates as human beings. What we have seen is a Legislature that has not responded adequately to pleas from Mr. Stirling to provide the money he needs to fulfill a court mandate to provide adequate care to those mentally ill inmates. Or to hire enough qualified staff to fulfill what the agency calls one of its three missions: to “protect the public, our employees and our inmates.”
Does the Legislature need to simply assume that Mr. Stirling has done everything right? Of course not. You don’t have four murders in 30 minutes and then a prisoner takeover nine days later in a system that is run perfectly. And our legislators have a duty to explore how much of the problem is simply lack of funding and how much of it stems from policy and performance.
Are the guards we do have improperly trained? Do they lack the skills and values necessary to do some of the most stressful and unrewarding work in our government? What, if any, role is played by management decisions such as how to allocate limited staff among the prisons, which prisoners to house together and how to treat the mentally ill?
Recent arrests suggest — but certainly don’t prove — that we have some correctional officers who shouldn’t be correctional officers. People who assault and even kill prisoners who are handcuffed and in their cells. People who bring contraband into the prison, apparently to sell to inmates to supplement the meager salaries. Were they unfit from the start, or did the low pay tempt otherwise good people to cross those lines?
The first step in answering these questions comes on Thursday morning, when Mr. Stirling testifies before the Senate Corrections Committee. That will give him an opportunity to explain what he thinks needs to be done to get the agency back on track. And it will give senators the chance to explore whether he is managing the agency’s rapidly changing population in the best way.
After peaking in 2010, the prison population has started dropping, as a result of smart decisions by the Legislature to find alternative sentences for all but the worst of the worst criminals.
But while legislators noticed that the population dropped, it’s not clear that they’ve all noticed that the people still in prison are … the worst of the worst. The people who are more likely to pose security problems, either because they came in as violent criminals (66 percent of the population now, up from 54 percent in 2002) or because the state’s truth-in-sentencing law means half of them have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, which, as the agency notes, means they “have few incentives to reduce negative behaviors.”
Mr. Stirling has a duty to make sure lawmakers know what the challenges are and what he needs to keep the prisons safe. If legislators don’t either provide what he needs or else explain why that’s not the solution, and what the solution is, then the next time there’s blood, it will be on their hands.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.
Crime behind the walls
Would we even have noticed Sunday’s inmate takeover if the executions weren’t fresh in our minds? How many of us remember that an inmate at Evans Correctional Institution was stabbed to death by another inmate in March? Or that in February, two correctional officers were assaulted by inmates at Broad River Correctional Institution? Or that in November, an inmate at McCormick state prison killed another inmate?
But the prisoners aren’t the only criminals inside the prisons. In February, a guard was arrested for bringing marijuana and alcohol into the prison where she worked, bringing to six the number of officers arrested in recent months for bringing contraband into the prisons. In December, three guards were charged with attempted murder for allegedly stabbing an inmate who was handcuffed in his cell. The previous day, another officer was charged with assault and battery for allegedly hitting an inmate who was handcuffed. A week before that, a guard was arrested on bribery and conspiracy charges.