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South Carolina prisons police investigators have made several arrests of officers lately, including one accused of introducing contraband at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

South Carolina's prisons are facing an ongoing problem that officials say is straining resources, leading to staff firings and recently prompted Gov. Henry McMaster to declare the situation an emergency.

Contraband such as cellphones, tobacco and narcotics are making their way to inmates. Tossed over fences, flown in by drones or otherwise smuggled inside by civilian visitors and occasionally correctional officers themselves, officials say the problem has festered for years, fueled by such factors as historically poor pay for officers and high staff vacancies.

While the contraband itself is mainly a problem behind bars, their impact ripples far outside of prison walls, putting a strain on staff and causing millions of dollars of impact on the state budget as lawmakers race to institute reforms.

For Bryan Stirling, S.C. Department of Corrections director, cracking down on smugglers, lobbying for harsher penalties, installing new technologies and instituting reforms such as pay raises for officers are essential tools in stopping the flow of illicit items behind bars. 

The recent firing of three correctional officers who allegedly brought prohibited items into two state prisons and accepted money from inmates is the latest example of how grave the situation has become and how officials are working to address the problem.

"That sends a clear message we're not going to tolerate this," Stirling said.

In recent years, lawmakers and state officials have boosted pay for correctional officers, hired more staff and are working to strengthen punishments for supplying prohibited items to inmates.

Netting has been put up outside prison to keep anyone from tossing contraband over fences and efforts are in place to install drone detection equipment. 

But there's one critical element that Stirling says is beyond state control: cellphones.

Dangerous tools

He and other state officials have joined in a nationwide effort to allow cellphone jamming technology into prisons — a tool he said would hamper inmates' abilities to conduct illicit activity from behind bars.

"Charles Manson was able to get his hands on two cellphones before he died," Stirling said. "South Carolina is not alone. This is, frankly, a nationwide problem."

He also pointed to the March 2010 shooting of then-correctional officer Robert Johnson as an example of how dangerous phones can be in inmates' hands.

Johnson was shot outside of his Sumter home after an inmate used a phone to order a hit on him, Stirling said.

"It's just a constant," he said. "If the cellphone industry is going to continue to put profit over public safety, we aren't going to get anywhere."

The Federal Communications Commission is currently debating the issue of cellphone jammers. Stirling said he plans to meet with commissioners at the end of April on the subject.

Curbing contraband

At the end of February, the governor announced an executive order intended to curb the flow of contraband, an issue he’s classified as a state emergency.

The order allows State Guard volunteers — not to be confused with the S.C. National Guard — to stroll fence lines and drive around the perimeters of the state’s high-security prisons in order to deter potential smuggling. 

The State Guard, which is led by the adjutant general, comprises more than 1,000 volunteers. Sixty of those state guardsmen with law enforcement experience would be needed to patrol the correctional facilities.

About a week after McMaster announced his order, the Corrections Department announced that three now-former officers were charged in connection with alleged smuggling.

Joshua Glover, who worked at the Lieber prison, and Kenetta Holloway and Joshua Cave, both of whom worked at the Allendale prison, were each arrested on charges related to criminal conspiracy and public officials accepting bribes between September and the first week of March, according to affidavits.

Each of the former officers accepted monetary bribes as large as $6,000 in exchange for getting items such as tobacco and marijuana to inmates, affidavits said.

Five correctional officers have been fired and face criminal charges so far in 2018, Stirling said, adding that the number is roughly on par with 2017.

A bill currently before the Senate's Corrections and Penology Committee would strengthen penalties for supplying contraband to an inmate.

Stirling said he's working with lawmakers and hopes to see the bill make such action a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

After this month's arrests, a spokesman for McMaster said the plan to combat contraband would remain unchanged.

"It absolutely still remains true that the Department of Corrections needs further manpower to keep contraband from being introduced in the prison population," said Brian Symmes. "And so, this does not change the governor's thinking that more volunteer manpower will help keep contraband out of the prisons."

Additional training and changes to standards for officers are not being considered, Stirling said.

Rebuilding the force 

For Stirling, it's clear that additional government resources are necessary to help restrict the flow of contraband.

In the past two years, more than 13,500 cellphones and accessories have been confiscated by the Corrections Department.

Part of those resources include boosting pay and hiring more officers.

Since 2016, entry-level pay for officers increased from nearly $28,000 per year to more than $31,000 annually. 

With overtime, average pay for correctional officers was more than $38,000 in 2017, a significant increase from levels as recently as three years ago when salaries hovered around $27,000 to $28,000, Stirling said. 

McMaster and Stirling are also calling for a $1,000 salary increase for officers. The state's House of Representatives slashed the proposed increase to $750, but Stirling said he remains hopeful that the Senate will approve the raise. 

These efforts appear to be paying off. 

Between 2011 and 2016, the state lost about 150 correctional officers per year, Stirling said. By the end of 2016, the state managed to break even and not lose more officers. The end of 2017 saw about 100 more officers than the year before. 

There are currently about 600 open correctional officer positions state-wide, he said. 

Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.