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Prison deaths are piling up in S.C. -- does anybody care?

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Maximum Security Music (copy)

Razor wire protects a perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

The South Carolina Department of Corrections website is a wealth of information: You can track the inmate population over almost a half century. It slices and dices the data in dozens of ways: by gender, race, age, marital status, type of crime and length of sentence. You can see the number of people on death row, the escapes and the mentally ill.

But what the state does not want you to know is that 2017 may have been the deadliest year in the history of the prison system. And this year, so far, is even worse — including a dramatic spike in suicides.

Eighteen people died in state prisons last year — 12 of them murdered by other inmates and six by suicide, according to the Department of Corrections. It took a Freedom of Information Act filing to pry these basic numbers out of the prison system and compare them with previous years. That shouldn’t have been necessary.

No previous year came close, the data the prison system finally coughed up show. The body count has risen four years in a row. The record in 2017 exceeded the record in 2016, when five inmates were murdered and six committed suicide. In 2009, there were two deaths total.

Keep in mind the prison population has fallen every year since 2010 as the state has diverted low-level offenders from the system, a good thing. But the rising death toll has been driven by a desperate shortage of correctional officers — 1 in 4 jobs are vacant — and the power of the gangs, who increasingly run the prisons. Mental health care remains woefully inadequate.

The corrections department blames the rising violence on contraband cellphones “and the illegal activity conducted with them.” South Carolina is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to allow the state to become the first in the nation to use cellphone jamming technology.

The last two years saw an explosion in inmate-on-inmate assaults. Put simply, anyone who can has a knife. There were 250 assaults that required taking inmates to outside hospitals in 2016 and 2017. That was more than double the previous two years. Attacks on correctional officers also spiked.

Overall, deaths and serious assaults are running at a record pace this year. In the first two months, there were two murders and a shocking four suicides. There were six suicides in the three months from December through February. That compares with six suicides in each of the last two years. This mirrors a rise in prison suicides nationally, suggesting this is less a bad patch and more a deadly trend.

And this does not even include what is going on in the county jails, which typically house about 12,000 inmates compared with 20,000 in the state prisons.

In 2016, the Department of Corrections settled a decade-old class-action suit that committed the state to upgrade mental health treatment. In a ruling, South Carolina Judge Michael Baxley wrote that the state’s care of mentally ill inmates amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. “Evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the S.C. Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care,” Baxley said.

Gloria Prevost, executive director of Protection & Advocacy, which brought the lawsuit, said the violence continues because of inadequate security and medical staff. “Understaffing of security staff significantly impacts the mental health programs, causing increased lockdown time and lack of access to programs,” she said. Without more funding for staff, “the problems will not diminish.”

There were three suicides alone in January. One of those was Travis Marshall Steffey, convicted of distribution of methamphetamines in Aiken.

Steffey was kicked out of two Georgia high schools and had a series of minor scrapes with the law for things like petty larceny, public drunkenness and assault and battery. Then in the spring of 2015, at the age of 19, he was busted for dealing drugs.

In years of Facebook posts, Steffey is a profane, angry gangster wannabe. He likes Confederate flags and doesn’t like cops or snitches. But by December 2015, facing real prison time, Steffey’s posts were changing:

“#GOD #Sobriety #Happiness #FAT #Leader #Positive Many more hashtags of new me,” he wrote five days before Christmas.

And later the same day: “Pray pray pray things will make changes not fast but they do — and it feels good to spend a lot of money on stuff I want besides dope it was a waste when I did that ... love y’all goodnight and God bless u all who are in need and even the ones that ain’t.”

It was too late. That May, at the age of 20, Steffey was incarcerated in Columbia; his projected release date was June 2019. He never made it: 21 months after going in, Steffey killed himself at Kirkland Correctional, a maximum security prison, by swallowing paper clips, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. It would not have been an easy death, Watts said. Steffey was 22.

The question, of course: Does anyone care? The state prisons are filled with poor, uneducated men — 93 percent are male — and there are no Boy Scouts in there. Sixty-one percent are black, twice the statewide population. The average inmate has a 10th grade education; 17 percent are considered mentally ill. And if the tepid reaction to my previous prison columns is any measure, nobody cares.

We don’t care at our peril. As Bryan Stirling, the state’s prison director, likes to say, we should care because more than 85 percent of current inmates will be back in our communities in less than five years. These people aren’t going away.

Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at Follow @sjbailey1060.

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