COLUMBIA — South Carolina should improve prison officers' training, better manage gang members and penalize their leaders, and offer inmates more opportunities to shave time off their sentences to incentivize good behavior, according to a state audit presented to legislators Monday.
A lengthy review by the Legislative Audit Council also found inconsistencies in how and whether inmates and visitors are searched for contraband. And it's unclear how much contraband — such as cellphones, which have allowed inmates to carry on their criminal enterprises — is found because it's not being properly tracked, the audit found.
Legislators requested the audit following the April 2018 riot at Lee Correctional Institution in rural Bishopville that left seven inmates dead and 22 injured, making it the nation's deadliest prison riot in 25 years.
The riot has been at least partially blamed on gang turf wars and the prevalence of illegal cellphones, which allowed inmates to communicate and spread the violence to three separate housing units.
The prisons agency lacks specific sanctions for gang members or, conversely, incentives for prisoners to leave a gang, as other states do, though the agency is working to revise its policies.
At the time of the deadly riot, the state's maximum-security prisons each housed up to 262 known gang members, with Lee ranking fifth with 184, according to the report.
It suggests the agency try separating gang members from the general population to see whether that reduces violence and, if that proves successful, expand the practice throughout the system.
Those are among more than 100 recommendations laid out in the report. Discussion will continue Tuesday by a House Oversight panel reviewing the Department of Corrections.
Currently, state law allows eligible prisoners to reduce their time for education and vocational training. But auditors say prisoners should also be able to earn "good time credit" for successfully completing programs on anger management, substance abuse and other social life skills, as more than 20 other states do. The report also recommends expanding access to such programs and relying less on volunteers.
"Classes help while they’re in, and helps the public when they get out," said Marcia Lindsay, the council's deputy director. "If you educate them and get them skills and coping mechanisms, it’s safer for the employees and other inmates and, when they get out, society."
Other recommendations involve changing how mentally ill inmates are placed. Currently, the severely mentally ill are automatically placed in maximum-security prisons because that's where there are more mental health staff. But it means mentally ill prisoners may be inappropriately housed with violent offenders, the report said. It suggests putting mental health units in lower-security prisons.
The agency is considering designating a prison solely for mentally ill inmates, the report said.
A shortage of staff is the basic problem for much of the agency's woes, said Marcia Lindsay, the council's deputy director.
High turnover has resulted in almost three-quarters of all officers being on the job for three years or less. Agencywide, the vacancy rate for front-line officers was about 28 percent, but shortages were far worse at some prisons, with vacancies hovering around 50 percent at prisons in rural Marlboro and McCormick counties.
Recommendations for legislative action that could help fill vacancies include lowering the minimum age for becoming an officer, currently 21. Twenty-three states allow correction officers to be 18 years old. Lowering the age requirement would help with recruitment, and the agency supports that change, the report said.
To reduce the number of inmates in the system, legislators could direct county jails to keep inmates sentenced to one year or less. Offenders sentenced to more than 91 days go to prison in South Carolina. That's the nation's lowest minimum sentence for imprisonment, auditors said. Roughly 900 people are in state prisons on sentences of less than a year, according to the agency.
After several years of pay increases approved by legislators, officers in state prisons earn more than officers in most county detention centers, except for Spartanburg and Greenville counties. Federal prisons pay better, but officers need more experience for those jobs, the report concluded.