In the wake of an inmate’s escape from a maximum-security prison, the head of South Carolina’s prison system said his department is working to fill vacancies that have left it with too few officers.
Bryan Stirling told an S.C. Senate panel that about 30 percent of Department of Corrections posts are vacant.
During the day shift at the state’s highest-security prisons, the ratio of inmates to officers is 39-1, Stirling said. It can increase to 80-1 at night.
During the times when staffing is lowest, Stirling said he wants to have one to three officers stationed in each wing of a prison. Now, at times, one officer can be monitoring more than one wing, he said.
The Senate’s corrections oversight committee met Thursday, just weeks after an S.C. inmate escaped for the second time from a maximum-security prison.
Convicted kidnapper Jimmy Causey used a makeshift dummy to dupe corrections officers into thinking he was still in his bed at Ridgeville’s Lieber Correctional Institution on July 4. Causey’s escape went unnoticed for 18 hours. Three days later, he was captured in a Texas motel room.
Stirling said Causey used a contraband cellphone to plan the escape. Investigators also think a drone was used to drop wire cutters onto the prison grounds to help Causey escape.
Three other people later were arrested and charged with aiding Causey in his escape, either by wiring him money or providing him with transportation.
However, Causey’s escape wasn’t the main focus of Thursday’s meeting.
Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, told Stirling that legislators knew some questions could not be answered due to ongoing investigations within the prisons department.
Stirling thanked the senators for voting to boost corrections officers’ pay, one solution to attracting more prison officers. “For a while, our corrections officers were making less than Wal-Mart employees,” he said.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said she was contacted by a corrections officer who was upset the department was spending money on new uniforms for prisoners. But Stirling said the uniforms serve a purpose: They make escaped inmates more easily recognizable to the public.
Currently, state inmates wear khaki uniforms, an outfit that Stirling said makes them look like landscapers if they get outside prison walls. The director recalled an inmate who escaped from a Columbia prison and simply walked down Broad River Road.
“If they make the decision to walk away, I want them to be recognizable,” he said. With the new uniforms, “they can be more easily identified.”
Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, asked if the issues facing the department are hurting both employees and inmates.
“I’m constantly receiving calls about morale — inmate morale, officer morale,” Allen said. “What is the department doing to address it?”
Stirling said he hopes corrections officers “see everything we’re doing for them.”
The department is trying to boost recruitment and retention, raise officer pay and improve security features at prisons, he said.
The Senate panel hopes to have recommendations ready for legislators when they return to the State House early next year.
“We want to be proactive rather than reactive,” said Sen. Shane Martin, the Spartanburg Republican who chairs the Senate corrections committee. “That’s why we formed this committee before any of these incidents occurred.”