Here is what the people who run South Carolina’s prisons don’t want you to know: that a month before America’s deadliest riot in a quarter century they were warned that the state’s corrections system was operating with half the staff required to keep it safe.
That warning came from the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ own consultant who filed his confidential report last March, weeks before Lee Correctional in Bishopville exploded in a night of violence that left seven dead and 22 injured. The report remained mostly buried in the SCDC’s executive offices until I obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. Even then about 178 pages of the 320-page document were redacted — including staffing levels for every prison and who knows what else?
Despite the redactions, the report makes clear the corrections department has far understated just how dire the staffing shortage is behind the prison walls. While the department has said that 1 in 4 correctional officer jobs are vacant, the report shows the state would have to double the current staff to more than 4,000 to meet industry standards.
The analysis was written by Tom Roth, a former Illinois warden who has done more than 100 staffing reports nationwide. Over six months, Roth visited 13 men’s and women’s state prisons, including Lee Correctional. Half the prisons had fewer than 50 percent of the recommended staff — one just 38 percent. Not a single prison had more than 62 percent of the needed manpower.
‘’The practice of operating SCDC institutions with insufficient security staffing levels has become the norm and should not be considered the result of a recent phenomenon,’’ Roth wrote. ‘’The deficient staffing levels have impacted daily operations for an extended period and appear to have gotten worse over the past three years.’’
The acute shortage, Roth reported, resulted in prolonged lockdowns that have led to increased assaults on inmates and correctional officers and fewer services, including health care, for prisoners. One unidentified prison was locked down 350 times in 11 months in 2017; another routinely locked down inmates at 2 p.m. And that was before the Lee riot, which led to even more and longer lockdowns.
Roth said the staffing shortage was responsible for higher costs through increased overtime and high employee turnover.
The Roth report included 19 pages on Lee Correctional, at least 15 of which were redacted. But those few pages are worth reading; we can only guess at what was blacked out.
It was widely reported after the deadly April riot that broken locks on cell doors allowed some inmates to wander the prison and others to be assaulted or killed. This should not have come as a surprise. ‘‘Some of the cell doors in 2 1/2 of the wings were reported to be able to be manipulated not to lock,’’ Roth wrote in March.
Roth warned Lee was operating at “extremely deficient” staffing levels, about 100 fewer officers than six years earlier. ‘’The practice of having between one and two officers assigned to provide security, custody and control of 250 maximum security inmates is inconsistent with realistic expectations of what an officer can accomplish,’’ he said.
While SCDC has suppressed the Roth report, it has been aggressive in its campaign to keep cellphones from inmates. It’s working. The Roth report shows ‘’phone incidents’’ have declined at some prisons. At Lee, for instance, phone incidents fell by 52 percent in 2017 from two years earlier. They declined by 31 percent at Lieber Correctional in Ridgeville and 84 percent at Broad River in Columbia. Inmate deaths, unfortunately, continue to climb with almost nothing said about it by the administration.
Roth notes other states are also facing staffing issues and says the department has worked diligently to recruit new officers. He puts the primary blame exactly where it belongs. ‘’For the department to have any opportunity to meet the staffing levels required to accomplish the established responsibility of the department, legislative initiative and support is a requisite,’’ Roth wrote.
There is no question the prisons need more resources even as the inmate population declines. But the prisons need something else, too: far greater transparency.
The SCDC commissioned the Roth report as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit over mental health care for inmates. It shared the report with the governor’s office and a handful of legislators and then promptly buried it. This is all too familiar: Last year I had to make another Freedom of Information request just to show 2017 was the deadliest year in the history of the prisons.
Then came the meltdown at Lee — and yet another record for deaths in 2018. It’s too late to hide the crisis that’s going on inside the prisons. We need to own it to fix it.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.