The Department of Corrections will have a permanent chief on Tuesday, after the acting director is confirmed by the Senate.
By the numbers
6: The number of years Stirling served as deputy attorney general before joining the governor's staff.
1996: When Stirling received his law degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He earned a bachelor of arts in political science there in 1991.
More than 40: The number of criminal domestic violence cases Stirling's resume says he has prosecuted since 2004.
5,700: The number of security and nonsecurity personnel in the S.C. Department of Corrections system. They work in 26 prisons and other sites, with nearly 22,000 inmates.
17 percent: The estimated incidence of serious mental illness in S.C. prisons, according to a judge. That's about 3,500 inmates.
Bryan Stirling was named to the position in September by Gov. Nikki Haley. He had been working as Haley's chief for about a year, before taking over the position referred to as a "thankless" job by Sen. Shane Martin, R-Pauline.
Stirling is taking over during a challenging time for the agency - a circuit judge issued a 45-page ruling in January detailing measures the department must take to improve the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. The department has said it will appeal the ruling, and Stirling told the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee on Thursday that he has written a letter asking that the plaintiffs' attorneys reopen mediation.
Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said Friday he agreed that the position as director of the agency is challenging, because of the subject matter.
"Certainly the circumstance with mental health is also a very serious challenge for anybody to handle," Thurmond said. "The personality and the person that I know is somebody who is up for the challenge and willing to get up there and work."
The court ruling is the result of a 2005 class-action lawsuit filed against the agency by the nonprofit group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc., on behalf of mentally ill prisoners. Attorney Stuart Andrews is among those who represent the group.
Andrews acknowledged on Friday receiving the letter, adding that the group is looking forward to the opportunity to talk to the department about ways to improve the mental health program.
"We're hopeful that the appointment of Director Stirling will create an opportunity for the department to have new leadership for its mental health program," Andrews said.
Bill Lindsey, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, echoed Andrews' sentiment. Lindsey said he hopes the department will work on improving the program instead of going through an appeals process.
"I'm concerned that they may not stick to Judge Baxley's order if they get into mediation," Lindsey said. "It's an extremely difficult case and there's a lot that needs to be done because people have been treated inhumanely."
In addition to the lawsuit, Stirling also said the department faces a hiring challenge.
"One of the things I wondered is why someone would want to become a corrections officer," said Stirling to the committee on Thursday. "It's not just a job, it's a calling."
Stirling said corrections officers work 12-hour shifts and are greatly outnumbered by inmates. Lindsey also said turnover is an issue for the department. He added a corrections officer needs psychological and social skills to handle inmates - especially those who are mentally ill.
"Unfortunately those folks are under-prepared for what they're getting into," Lindsey said. "These folks (prisoners) are sick and have a mental illness. Most of them are terrified and that's why they act up."
Stirling said the agency has been working with a doctor from Ohio, who is teaming up with the University of South Carolina, to make the process of identifying mentally ill prisoners better. Stirling told Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, they are working on ways to give inmates a reason to behave. But Stirling added that mental health is not a corrections problem.
"It's a societal problem," Stirling said. "Sometimes we're the first people to diagnose these people with a mental illness."