Law would add up to three years to inmate’s sentence if guilty of indecent exposure

A proposed law could add up to three years to an inmate’s sentence who is found guilty if indecent exposure in one of the state’s prisons.

COLUMBIA — Inmates in the state’s prisons sometimes expose themselves to the guards as a way of invoking fear or intimidation. And if new legislation is approved, that act could cost the offender an additional three years behind bars.

Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Myrtle Beach, sponsored a bill calling for the new penalties at the request of a S.C. Department of Corrections victims’ group to give the prisons another option to try to curb the number of those incidents.

Hembree said more women are working in prison sites that house men and he hopes the legislation helps protect them. In 2015, there were more than 1,100 recorded incidents involving the exposure of genitals.

“As time has gone by, there are a lot of female guards working in the prisons — it’s not just a job for a guy anymore,” Hembree said. “Some of these characters will do offensive overt sexual acts (while exposing themselves), directing those kind of things at corrections officers. They want to intimidate, humiliate and embarrass them. It’s almost like a sexual assault without touching them.”

If adopted, inmates would be charged with a misdemeanor in court. If found guilty, offenders could be issued a sentence of up to three years, which would be served consecutively.

SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said he welcomes the new legislation because it also would deem a correctional facility as a public place, which allows the application of criminal indecent exposure laws.

“We do have internal (disciplinary options); however, any other instruments or tools that we can use to thwart this behavior and protect our officers, I appreciate it,” he said.

SCDC categorizes instances of indecent exposure as “exhibitionism and public masturbation,” which could include maliciously exposing oneself or being seen while changing in a cell and reported by an officer.

Discipline could range from losing privileges, such as visitation or phone calls, up to being placed in restrictive housing if the inmate is a repeat offender.

There were 1,150 inmates charged with exhibitionism at least once in 2015, and many committed multiple infractions, according to SCDC records. The department does not specifically track the number of times someone purposely presented their genitals to an officer.

Of those charged last year, about 451 — or 39 percent — had been diagnosed as being mentally ill either before or during 2015. Pursuing charges in those cases would be determined with an inmate’s psychological standing in mind, Hembree said.

“(SCDC staff) have a better sense of a person’s mental stability than the regular courts would,” Hembree said. “In practice what’s going to happen, if they’re basically maintaining someone who’s insane in the jail, they don’t want to add time to their sentence. ... It’s a self-correcting issue.”

Stirling said anything that keeps those in the Corrections Department out of harm’s way is welcome in the state’s facilities.

“My goal is the safety of our officers.” Stirling said. “And if they don’t feel safe, then this tool will help maybe discourage (the bad behavior).”

The legislation is up for third and final reading in the Senate.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.