New Gate Access System (copy)

Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — A new test for people applying to work in South Carolina's prisons is a "game changer" for hiring officers who will stay in the job, make the right decisions and not end up in handcuffs themselves, state corrections officials said Tuesday. 

Amid years of high turnover and vacancy rates, the prisons agency has essentially been hiring anyone who passed a drug test and background check, said Kyle Caldwell, director of recruiting for the S.C. Department of Corrections.

But that hasn't kept slots filled, even as officers' average salaries have risen from less than $27,000 in 2014 to $35,000 this year.

Overtime, which previously wasn't paid, puts the average at almost $40,000.

While vacancy rates are improved from the high three years ago, about a third of the 2,350 officer positions across 21 state prisons were vacant as of Aug. 1. Over the last fiscal year alone, 335 employees resigned. That number does not include firings, according to the agency.  

Faced with those numbers, "you get the blinders on to say, 'How do we recruit loddy doddy everybody?' " Caldwell told a Senate panel asking about recruitment efforts.

"We need to go back and streamline to ask, 'Who is the candidate to set us up for success?' " he said. "It's going to take a certain individual who has a fundamental foundation in a core value system who will thrive in our environment."

Since March 16, those efforts have included requiring all applicants to take the multiple question Verensics test, which asks would-be officers what they would do in various scenarios.

"We can find out if people are made for corrections," said agency Director Bryan Stirling. "This test will tell you, 'Are you going to bring in contraband? Are you made for this job? Do you have the wherewithal to work a very difficult job under sometimes very difficult circumstances?' "

While there hasn't been enough time for full analysis, the agency is already seeing trends of employees staying longer, Caldwell said. 

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"That's been a game changer for us," he said. 

Over the last five months, 55 of the 461 people who took the test scored too low to even be considered for a job.

Of the 360 people hired, 12 have left, representing 3 percent of new hires. If those rates continue, it will mark a huge shift from the 30 percent of employees who have left annually since 2016. 

The agency is also starting to track resignations by shift. If resignations are unusually high from one shift, whoever's managing it may need some leadership training or "maybe you're not meant to be a supervisor. Maybe you're running people off," Stirling said.

Conversely, he added, a manager with virtually no resignations should be consulted on what he's doing right.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.