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Gov. McMaster declares emergency at S.C. prisons after riot, waives rules to bolster security

Prison Riot (copy)

Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville where seven inmates were killed and another 22 seriously injured during a seven-hour riot that started on April 15. AP Photo/Sean Rayford 

COLUMBIA — Declaring an emergency at state prisons after the nation’s deadliest inmate riot in a generation, Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order Monday allowing South Carolina's corrections agency to more easily hire officers and buy equipment to block contraband.

The S.C. Department of Corrections temporarily can stop following state hiring regulations so the agency can raise salaries, pay additional overtime and bonuses, and hire staff on-the-spot in an effort to fill more than 600 officer openings. The pay boosts will come from millions set aside for jobs left unfilled, the governor's office said.

McMaster's order also allows the prisons agency to avoid the state's lengthy procurement system to buy and install $7 million in netting at 11 higher-security prisons that could stop contraband from being tossed over prison fences.

In addition to the 38-foot-tall netting, the corrections department also plans to buy land near prisons so fences can be extended to keep away intruders, purchase more detectors for drones that drop contraband and pay for cell lock repairs.

S.C. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has worked for two years now to get more money to buy security measures to cover more state prisons, McMaster said.

"Well, as recent events demonstrate, we just have to move faster," the governor said during a visit to a Horry County technical college after issuing his order. "What I’ve done is exercise the authority I have as governor by declaring an emergency in this area to allow (Stirling) to short circuit and to go through without all the red tape."

McMaster is short-cutting the state purchasing and hiring practices because the General Assembly is in the final stages of drawing up a plan for the state's $8 billion budget that starts July 1. Lawmakers cannot throw extra money at prisons next year beyond modest proposed officer pay raises.

But Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said the governor's executive order smacked of executive overreach in a state run by the Legislature.

"Everything (McMaster) does not like he says is an emergency and then he tries to run the show," said Massey, who has backed efforts to give the governor more power and allow prisons to waive state purchasing rules. "He is suspending state law. If he wants to change the law, ask the General Assembly."

The seven-hour riot April 15 that left seven inmates dead and seriously injured 22 others at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville left the governor little choice but take the unusual step to quell unrest at the state's understaffed prisons.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said the governor's order mimics some efforts floated in the Legislature to help the agency "cut a little bit of red tape and get some people hired."

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Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman agreed with the governor that last week's deadly riot created an emergency. McMaster's order helps the state find solutions quickly to stop contraband and protect the lives of inmates and prison employees, said the Florence Republican, considered the state's most powerful politician.

"We've just got to put a stop to this," Leatherman said. "We have issues that need to be addressed."

Cellphones have become an increasing problem in S.C. prisons. Last week’s riot started, in part, in a fight over contraband phones. And several videos and photos were sent from inside Lee during the riot. Phones also helped share word of the violent brawl in one dorm that later spread to two others.

Inmates have used phones to coordinate attacks outside the walls, including the shooting of a prison police captain in 2010. Gangs also have used phones to extort cash from parents of prisoners, run drug rings and identity-theft scams, current and former S.C. prison officers have said.

South Carolina has lobbied the Federal Communications Commission unsuccessfully to block cellphone signals at prisons. Phone companies have opposed jamming calls at prisons, fearing interference of legitimate callers outside the fences. McMaster said that he has reached out to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about getting help to jam prison phone signals.

But stopping rising violence in prisons is tough when officers complain of low pay for difficult and dangerous work and the state's unemployment rate sits at its lowest point in years. The House and Senate each have pay raises for prison officers in their budget plans. But the extra $750 or $1,000 a year would increase the average starting salary to about $34,000, an amount unlikely to curb the agency's 25 percent vacancy rate for officers.

This is not the first time in recent years that a South Carolina governor has wrangled state money going through the Legislature after a crisis. Gov. Nikki Haley pushed through a $20 million loan for the S.C. Department of Revenue after the massive hacking of financial records belonging to 6.4 million taxpayers and businesses in 2012.

McMaster said he has the authority to waive the state rules in an emergency: "It’s time, and I’m doing it."

Going through the Legislature takes too long, said the governor, who hopes the deadly riot will spark the General Assembly to act next year.

McMaster did not put a deadline on how long the corrections department can avoid state pay, hiring and purchasing rules.

"We’ve got to get through this labyrinth, this maze of bureaucratic authorizations in order to do what we should have done before," the governor said, "and that’s allow the director of prisons to have the equipment and personnel he needs to keep the prisons safe and orderly."

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