South Carolina's Death Row was moved Tuesday from the Dorchester County prison it has called home for two decades to a Columbia facility with more officers and better resources for the condemned inmates, state officials said.
Lieber Correctional Institution near Ridgeville has suffered particularly amid declining staffing levels at prisons nationwide. It's a likely result of the robust job market in the Charleston region, S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said.
The overnight operation that transferred 37 inmates to Kirkland Correctional Institution could free up eight officers to bolster security elsewhere at Lieber, where Stirling said a single officer could sometimes be in charge of an entire unit of high-level offenders.
After years of falling employment rates, about 29 percent of front-line prison security jobs statewide are vacant, according to September data. Kirkland has the fewest openings, with about 11 percent of all security positions unfilled. Lieber's rate is much higher, at 30 percent.
The change also puts the inmates closer to the state's mental health care facilities and appellate courts, cutting down on time-consuming transfers.
"We're constantly looking for ways to help our staff," Stirling said. "We're striving to increase our numbers. We're not there yet, but we're getting there."
Stirling said the move had been in the works for months. It was not prompted by deteriorating conditions at Lieber, such as air-conditioning problems in the death row unit, he said.
Death row had last been relocated in 1997 from Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, the site of the state's execution chamber. Officers at the time expressed concerns about overseeing executions of prisoners they had come to know.
Though the state hasn't carried out one in six years, any executions would now require only a brief trip down the street.
Correctional officers, state law enforcement agents and highway troopers helped in the relocation effort just after midnight. The death row inmates were taken to cells once dedicated to solitary confinement, Stirling said. A 2014 settlement in a lawsuit prompted the state to cut down on its use of solitary, especially for people with mental illness.
Officials have no plans for the emptied former death row at Lieber, Stirling said.
But the two officers dedicated to the unit per shift could be used in towers, a security measure seeing a resurgence after falling out of use in past years, Stirling said. Though seemingly small, the relief is needed, he said.
"It is significant," he said. "If you're that one officer in that dorm by yourself and all of a sudden you have another there with you, it’s tremendous to that officer."
Stirling cited burgeoning private industry in the Lowcountry as the reason for difficulties in attracting candidates here. Just this week, Volvo announced that it would expand its plans for a Ridgeville manufacturing plant and bring in 3,910 jobs.
A typical salary for officers at Lieber runs about $36,000, Stirling said.
While a $1,500 pay bump last year and another $1,000 in 2017 might be improving Kirkland's employment rate slightly, vacancies statewide have remained constant. Officers also are being offered up to $1,500 in retention bonuses, $500 for recommending a new employee and overtime pay.
But last year, he said, the number of employees who left the agency and the total hired were the same: about 1,125.
"You can't make people do that job," said state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, who sits on the Corrections and Penology Committee. "They don't get paid enough for the spitting and the throwing of feces and everything else that happens in there."
Both the former home of death row and its new one, meanwhile, have seen their share of issues.
Lieber became embroiled in scrutiny in July after convicted kidnapper Jimmy Causey escaped by using a dummy to fool officers, then cutting through a fence. He was captured three days later in Texas with guns and $50,000 in cash.
But most notably at Kirkland in April, two men lured four fellow inmates into a cell and strangled them.
Though Tuesday's move puts the inmates closer to the death chamber, no one is likely to be executed any time soon. The chamber has sat unused since 2011, and the state’s supply of the ingredients for lethal injections expired in 2013. South Carolina has not been able to find the drug cocktail as more pharmaceutical companies prohibit its use for executions.
Electrocution can be used only if inmates choose that method.