Upstate lawmaker pushing bill allowing nonviolent offenders to attend family funerals

A Greenville lawmaker wants nonviolent prisoner to be able to attend the funerals of immediate family members.

COLUMBIA — An Upstate lawmaker wants to allow nonviolent inmates to attend loved ones’ funerals, but corrections officials say they don’t have the resources to do it safely.

Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, said he believes letting offenders who are not deemed a security risk pay final respects is the humane thing to do.

As proposed, the offender, or a third-party on his or her behalf, would be required to pay the costs of having S.C. Department of Corrections officers provide transportation to the service of an immediate family member — defined as a parent or parent substitute, sibling, spouse, child, grandparent or grandchild.

The funeral must held in-state.

Allen said it is up to the Corrections Department to determine if an inmate is not a public safety risk. “If you meet that, you can go to your mama or daddy’s funeral,” he said.

Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said the department stopped providing transportation to deathbed or final services in 2005 because the understaffed agency needed its officers working at the prisons, not transporting inmates.

“We stopped because of staffing issues and those issues continue to this day,” he said. “We will oppose the bill until the time we believe we can do it safely.”

Inmates who lose family members are allowed to make a phone call under current policy, Stirling said.

Allen said a records request showed that sheriff’s offices or county police transported 20 to 30 inmates to funerals between 2010 and 2015. He said it was unfair that only some offenders were able to pay their final respects.

“It should go back to the department because it’s the humane thing to do, to oversee and make sure that it happens” for everyone that’s eligible, Allen said.

S.C. Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder said some of the inmates that local departments transported were done by court order. Other trips were paid for by the offender’s family and some officers transported inmates while they were off duty, he said.

Bruder would not say if his organization supports or opposes the bill, just that they were concerned about associated costs.

“Everybody does not have the resources to do it,” Bruder said. “If (inmates are) willing to pay, that removes a hurdle. But we have to be able to ensure there are enough deputies that are willing to come back and do it.”

Allen said the bill passed a subcommittee Thursday and soon would be considered by the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee.

“If they stay on the humane aspects of it and the good of it, the committee should pass it out,” he said.

Allen said studies show psychological harm can occur when an inmate misses an immediate family member’s funeral because he or she is locked up. The impact is more severe, he said, if the inmate is serving time for a nonviolent offense and is getting out of prison soon.

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