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After deadly SC prison riot, Gov. McMaster OKs more money for corrections officers

Lee Correctional understaffed and officers underpaid during riot

Correctional officers at Lee Correctional Institution make up to $1,600 less than the national average. Their low pay is tied to high turnover and a high number of vacancies at the institution and throughout South Carolina Department of Corrections.
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Correctional officers at Lee Correctional Institution make up to $1,600 less than the national average. Their low pay is tied to high turnover and a high number of vacancies at the institution and throughout South Carolina Department of Corrections.

A week after seven inmates died in a prison riot, Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday gave the state's prison system approval to spend more money to hire and retain prison guards.

McMaster signed an executive order that gives prisons Director Bryan Stirling authorization to use vacancy funding to bump up the pay of some corrections officers and raise starting salaries in an effort to fill 627 vacant positions for guards. The Columbia Republican's order also removes rules that kept some higher ranking jail staff from earning overtime.

The order also expedites the state's purchasing process so the Corrections Department can install netting around its prisons more quickly to keep contraband cellphones out of the hands of inmates.

The governor's emergency order comes a week after a violent brawl erupted April 15 at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, leaving seven inmates dead and 22 injured in the nation's worst prison riot in 25 years.

Prison officials have said the "gang-related" fights — in three separate prison dorms — were sparked by disagreements about territory, contraband and cellphones.

Critics say the S.C. Legislature has failed to adequately fund the prison system, which has had difficulty filling vacancies for guards, in part, because of low pay.

Corrections officers have received steady pay increases in the past few years. Pay for new guards at maximum-security prisons starts at $34,596 a year — up from $27,897 in 2014. With overtime, some corrections officers make almost $42,000.

But the increases in pay and overtime have not been enough to fill the prison system's vacancies, leaving guards susceptible to attacks by inmates and causing officers to work even longer hours in already difficult positions.

Next month, the General Assembly could increase pay for corrections officers even more.

The S.C. House's version of the state budget that takes effect July 1 adds $3.7 million for raises for corrections officers — about $750 apiece. The Senate's budget adds $5 million — the amount the Corrections Department asked for — for raises of $1,000 apiece. However, a compromise between those competing budget proposals must be reached.

In a statement Monday, McMaster said his emergency order gives Stirling the tools to "properly compensate the brave men and women who serve our state as correctional officers."

"The (Corrections Department) has been combating high vacancy rates for years, and we are making progress," said prisons spokesman Jeffrey Taillon. "We are hopeful that this executive order will be another tool in our efforts to improve our staffing levels inside correctional institutions and security."

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter
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