COLUMBIA — Decades of underfunding at South Carolina's prisons created a powder keg of dangerous conditions that persist even after one of the deadliest inmate riots in U.S. history.
And they likely won't be fixed anytime soon. Retrofitting prisons so that officers can quickly quell violence — keeping both them and inmates safe — will require hundreds of millions of dollars over several years, said Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.
“I’ve been doing this 30 years (and) I know I’ve never seen it as unsafe as it is now for the inmate population,” said Carter Elliott, a Georgetown lawyer who represents several clients in prison lawsuits. “There’s no question about that.”
In the wake of a riot last April that left seven inmates dead and 22 others injured, legislators held hearings and demanded answers. But then interest seemed to wane.
Beyond the often-cited issues of inmate cell phones and high officer vacancies, the outdated prisons themselves are part of the problem. Improvements will depend on lawmakers who have historically resisted putting money into prisons.
"It's out of sight, out of mind. People think they (inmates) get what they deserve," House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, told The Post and Courier about why prisons were given short shrift.
But unsafe prisons put inmates, officers and the general public at risk, plus cost taxpayers through expensive lawsuits, he said. "Prisons have to be made safe and secure."
The deadly riot has resulted in dozens of lawsuits, still in their early stages.
South Carolina prisons aren't built like those seen on TV. There are no locked control rooms from which the vastly outnumbered officers can watch prisoners — or safely retreat. Officers can't electronically open and close cell doors. Instead, that's done by a huge, old-fashioned master key, one cell at a time, making a speedy lockdown impossible in an emergency.
Officers spend 80 percent of their shift turning that key to let inmates out of their cell or lock them back in, Stirling said.
As seen in a recent visit to maximum-security Broad River Correctional in Columbia — with housing units identical to those where riots broke out — the officer's back is often turned to inmates as he or she goes down the line of cells. At the end of V-shaped corridors, the officer is completely out of sight from the opposite wing. And that officer may be the only one working that dorm.
It's no wonder turnover remains rampant, despite an additional $58 million spent since 2014 to boost prison officers' pay to among the highest in the Southeast. Still, even after that 30 percent hike, their average starting salary is $34,300.
Keeping slots filled will require a safer work environment, Smith said.
"Would you want to come and work in a facility where one or two people are watching 200 inmates?" he said.
Prisons' layout and lack of technology weren't such problems when prisons were fully staffed. But that's been a decade ago, before an improving economy made it easier for people to find better-paying, safer jobs elsewhere, prison officials said.
The higher pay, plus the recent ability to earn overtime — which can add $5,000 to an officer's take-home pay — is helping stabilize shortages. Other morale boosters include cash bonuses and new boots, Stirling said.
Still, as of last week, there were 560 officer vacancies statewide — half of them at maximum-security prisons. There were 13 fewer positions filled than two years ago, according to Corrections.
Officer shortages escalated as sentencing reform led to fewer inmates and the closure of several prisons — lumping the most violent prisoners together, next to nonviolent inmates just trying to get through their sentence. At the same time, the percentage of inmates with mental health issues grew to 21 percent.
"Yes, they should be punished for what they did," but a prison sentence shouldn't put someone's life in jeopardy, said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who volunteers in prisons.
To those who discount prisoners, she offers another perspective: "It could be your family member, too. A lot of people are there for nonviolent offenses. But for the grace of God, that could be your child. Kids do stupid things."
Surrounded by danger, inmates are becoming hardened criminals just to survive, said Ed Bell, another Georgetown attorney who represents inmates in lawsuits.
"The first thing they get in prison is how to be a better criminal," he said.
The agency's budget request for 2019-20 includes $160 million for upgrades, mostly to build elevated control rooms and replace cell doors at several prisons. The agency declined to specify which prisons would be outfitted first.
"If you have someone in a control room who can watch and see everything going on, an officer (in the dorm) will feel more comfortable as they're doing their jobs," Stirling said. "If there's another set of eyes, that person could call help in and see what's going on."
When the riots — the nation’s deadliest in a generation — broke out at maximum-security Lee Correctional last April from a turf war among gang members, six officers were working in the three housing units involved. That's two unarmed officers per 250 or so inmates, far above national standards of four officers per 30 inmates.
The officers, unable to quell the violence, retreated, as they're trained to do. The riot lasted seven hours as officers waited for enough reinforcements to get to the rural Bishopville prison before re-entering. Bodies literally piled up.
"At a certain point, you’ve got to save yourself and retreat out and lock the doors," Stirling said, adding that a secure control room would have given officers a safe place to retreat with a birds-eye view of what's going on.
"It's important to have eyes in there," he said.
The 2019 legislative session began Tuesday with an additional $1 billion available to spend in the upcoming budget — half of which is surplus for one-time expenses. Some legislators want to use some of that to make prisons safer.
“Not only are they realistic, they are mandatory,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. “We cannot continue to put prisoners’ lives in jeopardy. These are measures that should have been done 15 years ago. If we don’t do them now, we’re just falling further and further behind.”
In all, Stirling's preliminary budget request, submitted last October, seeks an additional $285 million. That includes $6 million to give officers and other employees a $1,000 raise and $12.4 million to hire more mental health and medical staff at higher wages to keep them.
Efforts so far
Officials say the prevalence of illegal cell phones allows inmates to continue their criminal enterprises while locked up. Last November, five inmates and 10 others were accused of using cell phones to extort more than $560,000 from 442 military service personnel across the country.
Stirling says cell phones contributed to the deadly riot at Lee, as the illegal communication spread the violence to three separate housing units, where otherwise there was no way to see or hear what was happening inside.
For years, he's unsuccessfully sought permission from the Federal Communications Commission to jam signals in prisons, only to be blocked by opposition from cell phone companies. So he started looking for other ways to stop the flow.
In fall 2016, he began seeking several required approvals from different legislative committees to erect nets that rise 38 feet above prisons' razor-wire perimeter fencing. The now-50-foot barrier prevents people from throwing bags filled with drugs, cell phones and other contraband into prison recreation yards. The agency had the money, due to its inability to fill slots. It just needed permission to spend it.
The state's lengthy approval process meant the first nets didn't go up until January 2018. They've been installed at five maximum-security prisons since, including at Lee. Five more prisons are awaiting installation, for a total cost of $8.8 million.
Where they've gone up, there’s been no reports of contraband getting over the fence, Stirling said.
Before the netting went up, an inmate might spend $100 for a smuggled cell phone. The price has escalated to $2,000, Stirling said, indicating the supply drop.
"Confiscation is way down," he said Monday.
Following the Lee riot, officers increased the frequency of cell searches for contraband. A search of a maximum-security housing unit last week found just one phone, he said.
Rules require everyone who enters a prison, whether a visitor or employee — including Stirling himself — to pass through a metal detector and receive a pat down.
Expecting the nets to increase attempts to smuggle contraband in, the agency last month began replacing regular metal detectors with high-tech whole body scanners like those at airports, which can detect contraband in even unseemly places. All medium- and maximum-security prisons will get them. Four, including Lee, have them so far. Each must be approved by the state's public health agency.
Every prison will also get new, portable scanners that light up when a cell phone is near.
Other efforts to reduce contraband include clear-cutting land around prisons — nearly 100 acres so far. The woods just outside prison fences offered convenient hiding places from which people could congregate to plot, toss things over, or, where fencing has gone up, operate drones to drop bags in without being seen.
The agency also wants to move recreation yards away from exterior fences toward the middle of prison grounds, to make it more difficult to smuggle items through the fence. Stirling's budget request includes $2 million just to relocate the prison yards of five housing units at Lee.
In some cases, employees themselves are part of the problem.
Low pay is the greatest contributor to officers who break the rules, like helping to smuggle in contraband in exchange for cash, said Daniel Vasquez, a longtime California prison administrator.
“They want money for whatever has to be done — house payments, car payments, bills,” Vasquez said. “If they’re not making enough, they’ll resort to other means.”
At least 15 prison employees were arrested in contraband-related cases last year, according to agency news releases.
Arrest affidavits accuse officers of taking money to smuggle contraband in, using cell phones to communicate. One officer is accused of hiding marijuana in her hair, another in a sock hidden in her pants pocket.
Bell, the attorney, said he's found substantial evidence of significant money-making operations that have flourished for years between inmates and staff who are tempted by the easy money.
"There is a widespread criminal enterprise within the system and some outside people," he said. "They’re using coercion and threats."
Working with Stirling, Shealy is re-filing legislation that would increase penalties for sneaking cell phones and other contraband to an inmate. The latest attempt would specify the crime is a felony and make punishment even stiffer for employees caught breaking the law.
Other proposals up for debate this year would shrink the state's approval process for security measures at prisons and further reform sentencing laws to remove mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses.
"We have sentences for drugs that are way out of whack from the Southeast and rest of the nation," said Smith, adding that a drug trafficking charge here would be simple possession elsewhere.
But Sen. Greg Hembree, a former solicitor, said the problem with the 2010 sentencing reform is that it let more people out of prison without bulking up the state's probation system to follow up with their progress. He wants the Legislature to better fund programs that help inmates prepare for release into society. Stirling requested several million dollars for such programs.
"The first reform we didn't finish," said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. "It’s easy to balance numbers in prison on the backs of victims if all you’ve got to do is let them out."
"Stirling has done a very good job on his own," he continued. "We need to turn him loose and give him the money to do more re-entry work."
Meanwhile, it's unclear whether the public will ever know exactly what happened last April.
Members of the House Oversight Committee will ask their own questions as part of a broader review of Corrections starting later this month.
A criminal investigation into the riot is proceeding slowly, with prosecutorial agencies debating how best to split up the workload, according to the S.C. Attorney General's Office.
State prison officials sought an independent review following the riot. The status of that probe is unclear.
Brad Livingston, a former Texas prisons director leading a team assembled by the Association of State Correctional Administrators, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comments.
Even if it's complete, the security audit will not be released publicly, according to a Corrections spokesman. Rep. Smith said releasing the information could exacerbate safety risks and fuel expensive lawsuits.
"We should be walking around with our heads down," said Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Bamberg Democrat and attorney who represents prisoners in lawsuits. "There are cities with more people than our entire state that don’t have the problems that we have. It’s a major embarrassment."
Gregory Yee contributed to this article.