COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster wants volunteers from the S.C. State Guard to patrol the fences outside state prisons as the state's Department of Corrections continues to ask for more money to recruit employees.
On Tuesday, McMaster announced an executive order that is meant to stop drugs, cellphones and other contraband from entering the state's prison systems — a problem the governor classified as a state emergency.
The order will allow volunteers with the State Guard to man watch towers, walk fence lines and drive the perimeters of the state's high-security prisons in search of people smuggling in the contraband. Cell phones, drugs and tools have been tossed over fences.
The State Guard is not the S.C. National Guard. It's a volunteer organization controlled by the governor that's most often called on to respond to natural or man-made disasters.
"This will be a new set of eyes, an alert system, but it will be manned, so to speak, by professionals who have been in emergency situations before," said McMaster, who is running for reelection.
This isn't the first attempt by state leaders to stop the flow of cell phones into prisons where they can be used to orchestrate crimes outside the prison walls.
South Carolina prisons director Bryan Stirling has pushed the federal government to block cell phone signals at prisons. His staff has installed cameras on the outside of prisons. The department is also in the process of installing 40-foot-high netting around medium and high-security prisons to prevent people from throwing material over the barbed-wire fences.
At the same time, Stirling continues to fight to recruit and retain correctional officers. He helped push the Legislature for raises for the officers and he's expanded their overtime pay. Since 2016, entry-level pay for officers increased from nearly $28,000 per year to more than $31,000 annually.
Those efforts have had some success, but he said the state's prisons still needs help controlling the cell phones and contraband illegally flowing into the prisons. In the past two years, more than 13,500 cell phones and phone accessories have been confiscated by the Department of Corrections.
McMaster asked for a $1,000 raise per correctional officer in his proposed budget this year. Lawmakers in the House already rolled that back to $750 per officer.
The State Guard has more than 1,000 volunteers, but only 60 of them with previous law enforcement experience will volunteer to patrol the prisons. The state guardsmen will start at correctional institutions, but Stirling didn't want to specify which facilities would serve as the trial run for that effort.
Thomas Mullikin, the state Guard's Brigadier General, called his volunteers a "force multiplier." He emphasized that his volunteers don't cost the state any money.
"Not only will this be an effective solution, it will be a cost efficient solution," Mullikin said.
The Department of Corrections already was paying deputies with the Richland County Sheriff's Department to patrol near the state's prisons in the region. Richland Sheriff Leon Lott says that effort has helped but he pointed out that his deputies don't work for free.
"Unfortunately, we can't do it for free. Director Stirling has had to pay our deputies," Lott said. "Now with the state guard, they're going to replace our deputies we have here, but they are going to replace them by being free. It helps out the state. It helps out all of us."