COLUMBIA -- A state Senate leader warned Thursday that South Carolina lawmakers may be forced to consider releasing inmates early and shutting two prisons to save money if budget officials won't let them run a deficit, but closing any prisons would require reshuffling prisoners and any savings would take months to realize.
Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Mike Fair raised that highly unlikely alternative as one way for the cash-strapped prisons to avoid operating in the red the rest of the fiscal year ending June 30. He said, however, that he would prefer the Budget and Control Board allow the prisons to run a deficit of up to $7 million until then.
The five-member board, led by Gov. Nikki Haley, is expected to vote next week on whether to allow Corrections and two other Cabinet agencies to operate in the red through June 30.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said conservative lawmakers will be furious if the agencies are allowed to slip into the red.
Fair said the alternative to running a deficit, discussed with legislators and the agency's former leader, would be to release about 1,200 nonviolent prisoners up to six months early, for an estimated $7 million savings. But he warned such a move would require a wide reshuffling of prisoners and could take up to a year, meaning the savings wouldn't come right away. And he said the two prisons would need to be reopened when the economy improves to avoid overcrowding.
The Legislature would have to back the plan, he also said.
"And we don't have the political support to do it," said Fair, R-Greenville. "If we can do it another way, let's do it."
The prisoners selected for release would not put the public at risk, he said. But beyond the politics involved in any release, he said, closing two prisons would result in the layoffs of hundreds of prison staff in two communities -- though there's been no decision on which two.
Haley's spokesman said the governor opposes any early releases.
"Under no circumstances are we letting prisoners out of jail to fill budget deficits," said spokesman Rob Godfrey.
He declined to say how Haley would vote on the matter.
The issue arose during a Senate confirmation hearing for Haley's nominee to lead Corrections, current Juvenile Justice Director Bill Byars. Byars drew praise and the unanimous support of committee members.