Prison Riot South Carolina

FILE-In this Wednesday, April 10, 2019 file photo, prison staff work at Lee Correctional Institution, in Bishopville, S.C. A pair of federal lawsuits accuses South Carolina prisons officials of constitutional violations surrounding a riot in which seven inmates were killed at an institution last year. The wrongful death lawsuits were filed Tuesday and provided to The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)

Anyone looking for steady work that pays well should apply to the South Carolina Department of Corrections ... as a defense attorney.

On Tuesday, the families of two inmates killed in the 2018 riot at Lee Correctional Institution sued the state agency for wrongful death and various civil rights violations. And on Wednesday, state lawmakers grilled Director Bryan Stirling about how Corrections mistakenly kept a man locked up for two years after he’d completed his sentence.

Which is another lawsuit waiting to happen.

Add that to the nearly two-dozen complaints Corrections faces as a result of the riot at Lee — including one lawsuit from the former warden, who says the agency tried to make him the scapegoat of the nation’s worst prison riot in a quarter-century.

Over the past five years, Corrections has spent about $3 million per year settling such disputes. But some of these lawsuits are missing a few defendants. Because most of the trouble in Corrections can be traced directly back to the Statehouse.

For years, lawmakers have ignored pleas to increase funding to hire more prison guards ... or at least pay them a little more than a Starbucks barista. But they don’t. That is one problem you can’t lay on Stirling or Corrections management. Those folks are trying, and doing what they can with the resources they have.

Which don’t amount to much.

As opposed to the typical nuisance suits from inmates, most of these plaintiffs make some good points. It’s hard to argue South Carolina prisons aren’t underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded.

The two suits filed this week — by the families of Raymond Angelo Scott and Corey Scott (who weren’t related) — contend that the cells at Lee had broken locks, and sometimes there was only one guard watching 100 inmates.

Lee inmates, the lawsuits allege, were left “unsupervised throughout the day and night.” Which sounds like the sort of conditions that could lead to a seven-hour riot that left seven dead and nearly two-dozen injured.

Stirling knows all this. It’s why he asked for more than $40 million to improve security and facilities at the state’s 21 prisons this year. The Legislature gave him $10 million. Now, lawmakers will tell you Corrections gets its fair share. Why, just recently Stirling got approval to raise starting salaries for guards to a whopping $30,000 a year. Still, Corrections is woefully understaffed.

Hard to believe they can’t get any takers willing to risk a shank in the gut for $14 an hour.

There is enough blame to go around here. In his lawsuit, former Lee warden Aaron Joyner says he warned Corrections officials not to relocate rowdy inmates to his prison, that he didn’t have the security to keep them in line. “Because of the incident and negative publicity,” Joyner’s lawsuit says, “the governor and legislators are looking into the oversight and management of the entire agency and all of the institutions, including Lee.”

Governing is making decisions, and there is always someone in lawmakers’ ears, asking for money, often for at least semi-worthwhile projects.

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But few people lobby on behalf of inmates, unless of course it’s in a state with privatized prisons (which is a terrible idea).

The simple truth is most elected officials don’t take up the banner because it’s bad politics. Most taxpayers already believe these prisoners are sitting around watching TV all day, living it up with free room and board.

A tour of a state prison might change such opinions, but taxpayers typically don’t want to hear it. Many will tell you those folks made the decision to get themselves locked up.

Politicians will just keep doling it out, bit by bit, in settlements that result from losing lawsuits.

State Rep. Justin Bamberg (the attorney for the two Scott families) asked the question this way: How can government officials be OK with not protecting people who, although perhaps criminals, don’t deserve to die?

The answer: The same way a man was allowed to spend two years in prison after he’d served his sentence. A lack of political will to fix a broken system.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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