Despite inmates intentionally overflowing toilets to flood cells where locked-down prisoners also ate their meals, South Carolina prisons have come a long way since the deadly April 15 riot at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.
Clearly, though, lots of work remains.
The Legislature must redouble its efforts to make South Carolina prisons safer and cleaner, and ultimately a place where rehabilitation is possible. After years of cost-cutting dating to the Great Recession, lawmakers finally came up with funding to start increasing staffing and pay over the past two fiscal years.
Now, perimeter nets and drone surveillance are stopping “throw-over” cellphones. New body scanners are halting contraband at the “front door,” and inmates recently were removed from jobs that enabled smuggling operations.
Soon, some inmates may even get access to tablet computers to help further their educations.
More mental health workers are being hired. Telemedicine programs are being developed, as is an initiative for treating inmates with hepatitis C.
And lockdowns, some of which have been in place since seven inmates were killed in the rioting, are expected to be eased in the near future.
More guards are being hired, though about 2,000 more are needed systemwide. Retention is still a problem, but pay has risen about 30 percent over the past two years, and there’s more opportunity for overtime and bonuses. The inmate population continues to decline, dropping by about 800 prisoners over the past year.
Importantly, the criminal investigation of the rioting has been completed and turned over to the attorney general’s office, and inmates involved in the rioting — some of whom have been moved to a private prison — are closer to being held accountable for their actions.
Still, prisons director Bryan Stirling wishes he could make changes faster. He’s working with Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Wahalla, who heads a joint bond review subcommittee, to help speed up procurement and contracts for things like installing automatic locking cell doors.
Over the years, many of the locks in maximum-security prisons have been broken or disabled by inmates, causing guards to spend an inordinate amount of time locking and unlocking cells.
“I’m really trying to modernize” how we operate, Mr. Stirling said. The Dec. 16 sewage backup at Lieber prison in Ridgeville caused by inmates stuffing a uniform down a toilet, for example, took about 12 hours to resolve because plumbers had to be dispatched from Columbia.
While the Legislature has been responsive in terms of funding for staffing, attention also needs to be paid to improving the quality of life for prisoners. Having a guard spend an entire shift locking and unlocking cells is preposterous. And Mr. Stirling and his wardens should push to return to inmates at least an hour of “yard time” per day as soon as possible.
Mr. Stirling has wisely begun multiple rehabilitative and re-entry programs, many of which show promise, but he will need long-term funding and political willpower to continue guiding a prison system that was too long adrift.
Taxpayers and other citizens also should be concerned about what goes on behind bars because most of South Carolina’s 18,700 prisoners will be back among us in five years or less. That will be the true test of these systemic changes.