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Editorial: South Carolina's prison system is in crisis. Lawmakers must act

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S.C. prisons have made strides in recent years with reforms aimed at rehabilitating criminals, which should be the goal, but some still shockingly lack the basics — like cell doors that actually lock.

And if guards can’t control the movements of inmates, they can’t control the proliferation of gangs or the black market in drugs and cellphones. And they can’t prevent spasms of violence like the riot at Lee Correctional Institution that left seven prisoners dead in 2018.

Prisons Director Bryan Stirling says he needs about $200 million in one-time funding just to make his high-security lockups function as intended. The state will have an additional $1.8 billion to spend in the coming year, and while lawmakers must address education and other critical needs, some of that money needs to go toward the long-ignored prison system.

The Post and Courier’s investigation of conditions leading to the deadly riot at Lee made clear that the few guards on duty at the time had little control over the inmates before, during or after the melee, which lasted several hours. Most of the cell doors wouldn’t lock, and the rioting was able to spread from one dorm to another because of an unlocked door in a set of bars between them.

Fixing locks and building secure control pods for guards would cost about $40 million alone. Putting up fencing to segregate inmates in prison yards, $15 million. Fixing heating and air conditioning systems, $41 million.

Altogether, Mr. Stirling is asking for a $278 million budget increase, including recurring funds for raises and hiring more guards. He’ll never get that much. He asked for $160 million last year and got about $10 million. But his budget request helps put into perspective the formidable challenges he faces. The total is roughly the cost of a new prison.

Meanwhile, some inmates are getting rich behind bars running rackets enabled by cellphones, a major contributor to prison violence.

“Some guys got so much money that they be sending thousands of dollars home to their families with ease,” wrote an inmate contacted by The Post and Courier. “One thing the government knows is that the gangs run the prison system, and at any given time if the gangs start a war with them, they would lose.”

Corrections Department officials dispute that assessment, but it’s impossible to deny that the prison system is under siege from within the walls and outside of them.

Though Corrections officials have made progress in reducing the number of cellphones in prisons, federal law still prohibits the wholesale jamming of wireless gadgets. That needs to change. In 2010, a prison guard was shot six times and nearly killed in an attempted murder at his home orchestrated by inmates with cellphones.

Understaffing is chronic, as is corruption among guards. Only about half of the budgeted positions are filled at some of the state’s 21 lockups despite pay raises, bonuses and other incentives. Physical and mental health care for inmates is lacking.

To its credit, the Corrections Department recently started a new classification system meant to incentivize good behavior and reduce violence. But it’s hard to bring good intentions to fruition in a lawless environment. So, at the same time, prison officials also must compile better data on gang affiliations to avoid housing co-conspirators or warring sets together.

The  describes a troubling lack of transparency at the agency. Specifically, the most critical audits of Lee, warning of dangers before the horror of that night and scrutinizing the violence after, have been shielded from public view. An audit conducted by a national prisons leadership group found multiple failures in how S.C. prison officials handled the chaos at Lee and its aftermath, including significant communication and management breakdowns. Also, the agency denied reporters access to some emails that described internal concerns related to the transfer of inmates into Lee before the melee and the chronic problems with cell door locks.

This lack of openness is unacceptable. South Carolinians must demand better from Mr. Stirling and the rest of the state’s leadership.

Probation, Parole and Pardon Services — a separate department that might be more effective if combined with Corrections — also needs more funding to help former inmates stay out of trouble. One promising reform recently floated called for sending fewer ex-cons back to prison for technical parole violations, which could reduce the prison population.

Veteran lawmakers are aware of how the S.C. prison system came to be in dire straits after starving it of funding in the recession, yet the Legislature has still fallen woefully short of providing necessary funding during the long-running economic boom. It’s clear what will happen if the progress Mr. Stirling and his staff have made isn’t sustained.

Running prisons humanely and efficiently is a core function of state government. The S.C. House panel that oversees Corrections must persuade fellow legislators to make prison funding a long-term priority. If not, the state’s prison system will remain a shameful and deadly example of what happens when government fails to act.

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