COLUMBIA — South Carolina's 37 death row inmates were moved Thursday without incident to a nearby unit initially built for them in 1988 that allows for more socialization, according to the state Corrections Department.
"This is a shift in how we manage our death row inmates. For years and years and decades, they were locked in a cell 23 hours a day, and we’re getting away from that, like other states are," Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The Post and Courier, noting he traveled to other states' death rows for ideas before renovations began.
A 2017 lawsuit against the agency, in which death row inmates complained of their solitary confinement and lack of things to do, prompted the makeover, he said.
The morning move from Kirkland to Broad River Correctional, across a roadway inside the prison agency's main campus, marks the second time in two years the state has transferred its condemned prisoners.
It's a homecoming of sorts for seven inmates who were sentenced to die more than two decades ago; Broad River Correctional contained South Carolina's death house until 1997. That's when the unit was relocated to Lieber Correctional in rural Dorchester County, with the agency's then-director saying officers who deal with the inmates daily shouldn't be the same ones carrying out their execution.
In September 2017, death row moved back to the prison agency's sprawling property in Columbia, freeing up staff at Lieber, where officer vacancy rates were particularly high. The move also provided easier access to health care facilities and courts.
Death row couldn't return to Broad River Correctional then because it was housing inmates deemed sexually violent predators — prisoners who have served their sentence for sexual crimes but the state considers too dangerous to release. That unit's move last winter to a new facility on the same campus allowed for death row's return.
"We are glad to be able to return this unit to its original purpose," Stirling said.
The unit's layout differs from Kirkland, where eight hallways extended from a core like a spider. Inmates are still housed in separate cells of 6 feet by 14 feet.
The configuration of two floors of cells around a common area with tables and TVs allows for more socialization. Inmates will be able to eat together and attend joint worship services. Most will have jobs such as serving meals, cleaning and laundry — though only in the unit itself, according to the agency.
At Kirkland, inmates could socialize with their fellow inmates inside just one hour a day, five days a week, in groups of no larger than six. They also had the opportunity to be outside one hour a day, five days a week, weather permitting. Otherwise, they ate alone in their cell and could worship one-on-one with a chaplain, according to the agency.
Bob McAlister, the former chief of staff to the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, has volunteered on death row since 1984 and applauded the changes.
"It is by no means plush," he said. "It is by no means what any of us would like, obviously, but it does allow the inmates to work, No. 1, and to socialize, within reason. But the most important thing to me is that they'll be able to worship congregationally."
While death row was at Kirkland, he visited just once, as its confines made it "very difficult to establish relationships," he said. "It was almost impossible to have a private conversation."
He plans to renew regular visits now that inmates are back at Broad River.
"I walked in and it was eerie, because I felt like I was at home," he said about touring the unit Tuesday. "Some of the most precious worship services I’ve ever been to have been at Broad River on death row."
Renovations to the unit over the last six months include fencing along second-floor walkways, more security cameras, upgraded doors that can lock electronically and a control room that overlooks the unit. The unit was also made handicapped accessible, since one inmate is in a wheelchair.
The move to Broad River puts inmates back in the same facility as the state's execution chamber, which was last used in 2011, when an inmate abandoned his appeals and asked to die. All current death row inmates have appeals pending in state or federal courts.
Even if an inmate exhausts all appeals, South Carolina can't carry out an execution now unless the inmate agrees to die by electrocution. The state no longer has the three drugs needed to carry out lethal injections, and pharmaceutical companies no longer supply them.
Legislation requiring executions by either electrocution or firing squad, if lethal injection is unavailable, passed the state Senate earlier this year but hasn't gotten a hearing in the House.