Late on the evening of June 12, 2012, a security officer at Lee Correctional Institution was doing his normal rounds, escorting a nurse through a high-security block of the state prison near Bishopville as she handed out medicine to inmates. In an …
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Late on the evening of June 12, 2012, a security officer at Lee Correctional Institution was doing his normal rounds, escorting a nurse through a high-security block of the state prison near Bishopville as she handed out medicine to inmates. In an instant, a normal shift became a nightlong ordeal.
A door that should have been locked apparently wasn't. The officer was overpowered by a group of inmates (the nurse escaped) and for the next seven hours was held hostage inside a cell block designed for "the worst of the worst." He was beaten, bloodied and forced to change into an inmate's uniform before a team of 100 state Department of Corrections and State Law Enforcement Division officers used explosives to blow a door off its hinges, storm the unit and rescue the guard.
Just three months later, it happened again.
This time, a Lee guard was held captive by prisoners in a dormitory for nearly five hours until being rescued. He was located in a closet after hostage negotiators reportedly spoke to inmates inside the prison on contraband cellphones.
The back-to-back incidents highlighted several issues with security at Lee and other Level 3, or maximum security, prisons in South Carolina. And they also brought the Lee County institution some needed attention from the top of state government.
In her State of the State address to the General Assembly on Jan. 16, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the hiring of more guards and more money for increased security measures in the state's most high-profile prisons.
Highlighting the situation at Lee as an example, Haley called the jail "one of our most dangerous prisons, housing the worst of the worst of our convicts," and called Lee Warden Mike McCall an "unsung hero of South Carolina state government."
The governor could speak from personal experience. After the two hostage crises last year, Haley took a personal tour of the prison and spoke with staff members there about the challenges they face.
"I wanted to go to Lee, because it is one of the harshest ones," Haley said in a phone interview with The Item about the prisons situation. "I wanted to sit down and ask them 'What happened? What else do you need?'"
William R. Byars Jr., the state corrections director appointed by Haley, remembers the governor being keen to understand all aspects of Lee's operations.
"In fact, she wanted to go some places that frankly we didn't feel we should be taking her into," Byars said. "She was very interested in what we were doing."
Haley said she had to convince officials and her staff to allow her to visit Lee and see what corrections officers were dealing with for herself.
"I can't lead an agency unless I can go into that agency, and I got some push-back on that," the governor said. "I had to convince (SLED Chief Mark) Keel to do it."
She never interacted with the inmates during the visit. Instead, Haley and McCall toured around the prison inside the gates by car, then went into his office overlooking the interior of the prison and met with staff members about their needs.
"Not one asked for more money. What they wanted was more safety. When they go to work, they don't know if they're going to come home."
STAYING ON GUARD
One of the largest problems at the facility is a shortage of personnel. As of July 1, Lee had 63 vacancies, 48 of them at the officer level. At two other Sumter-area state prisons, the less high-security Turbeville Correctional Institution in Clarendon County has 40 total vacancies, and Wateree River Correctional Institution in Sumter County has only four.
After years of running deficits, the Department of Corrections admits staffing levels affect the operations of a high-security prison such as Lee.
"We have a minimum posting level in housing units, lock-up, control - critical places where the inmates are," said Robert Ward, the corrections department's deputy operations director. "If there are not enough people, we can close posts that are non-mandatory. That can impact on volunteer efforts, but they're not critical. ... If we can't meet the minimum staff levels, we keep them confined to their cells."
"If everybody gets the flu at the same time," Byars said, "they'll be locked down."
After her tour, the governor came away with the impression that the equipment guards had to work with was "archaic."
"When these guards were taken, they don't have the camera equipment to be able to see what's going on inside," Haley said. "It's an injustice if we don't help."
Lee alone has $6.5 million in deferred maintenance.
Byars echoed the governor's concerns about prison infrastructure.
"I was appalled when I got here at the state of the roads inside the prisons," he said. "They were full of potholes, a lot of the basic maintenance wasn't being kept up. ... Our weapons were not up to par, that kind of stuff. We've got a three-year program for that now."
With security the top priority, the budget approved by the General Assembly this year includes a recurring $1.7 million for additions to frontline personnel in the state's prisons. The new money will raise guards' pay by 3 percent in hopes of attracting employees to fill vacant positions at prisons such as Lee.
Rep. Grady Brown's State House district includes Lee Correctional. The Bishopville Democrat thinks the department needs to do more to make the post of corrections officer attractive and competitive with other state agencies so that personnel turnover rates can slow.
"They spend a lot on training," Brown said. "They think they're training their own personnel, but they end up paying for a state trooper or a SLED agent."
On July 19, Lee held a job fair to fill some of its officer vacancies, offering a base salary of $24,096, with a chance to grow up to $31,312 after two years.
The new program marks a shift in Haley's thought on the issue, brought about by her work on corrections since moving into the governor's office.
"When I was a legislator, I thought money for prisons was money spent on inmates, and as a legislature, that's not something we want to do," Haley said. "But I realized it's not hurting the inmates. It's for the good employees who are working to keep us safe."
For his part, Brown said he would prefer to see a larger share of the budget go toward all the state's law enforcement services.
"Whether it's the Department of Corrections or it's a state trooper, the state needs to fund all the people who protect us," he said.
STOPPING THE CONTRABAND
During the most recent standoff at Lee, the presence of cellphones inside the prison both complicated and, paradoxically, assisted officers in their rescue efforts. Several inmates communicated with negotiators via contraband phones, often making any coordinated demands, and information from inside the block helped rescuers locate the guard.
Lee County Sheriff Daniel Simon said his office often coordinates with the prison about stopping "throw-overs," as illegal items tossed over the outer fence are known. Simon said the problem was even worse before the tree line nearby was trimmed back, leaving contraband providers fewer places to hide.
"We used to be getting a dozen or more (calls) a day," he said. "Once, we had eight people throw something over in a 30- to 45-minute span."
Items guards and deputies have found thrown over include cellphones, tobacco, alcohol - often poured into plastic soft-drink bottles, and occasionally padded inside footballs and soccer balls - and various tools, including on one occasion, Simon said, a key to a pair of handcuffs.
"The fact that we didn't have towers, that's something basic," Byars said. "Somebody in a tower can see a lot more than somebody on the ground."
Recognizing the danger throw-overs pose, this year's budget allocates $237,000 for the construction of new observation towers. Sen. Thomas McElveen, who sits on the state Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said the request was based on analysis from the Department of Corrections showing the state was averaging one throw-over per day and 15 a month at Lee.
"I've only been in the Senate for one session now, but I'm told by high-ranking law-enforcement officers that the big problem is throw-overs," McElveen, D-Sumter, said. "It's only a matter of time, along with the cellphones and drugs and cigarettes that are thrown over, that somebody throws over a firearm or weapon."
Lee is slated to receive two new observation towers to boost security at the facility, as are five other Level 3 facilities.
"When they put the towers out there, they can see what's coming from different angles," Simon said. "When they can see each angle, they can catch a lot of it, if not stop it all together."
REDUCING THE INMATE POPULATION
While Lee Correctional holds inmates serving some of the harshest sentences in South Carolina, the outlook for other institutions is different. Over the past decade, the Department of Corrections has seen a fall in admissions for less serious, non-violent offenses. For the 10 years up to 2012, the incarceration rate at Turbeville dropped by more than 100, from 1,329 to 1,217, while the number of inmates at Wateree fell by more than 200, from 1,076 to 834.
Byars attributed the decline to changes in how the penal system handles its prisoners.
"The focus now is on making it more therapeutic," he said. "They sit them down and ask 'Why are you doing this? What's going on?'"
Programs at lower-level facilities such as Turbeville and Wateree focus more on rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates and ensuring inmates are prepared to re-enter the world as law-abiding citizens when they get out. Once inmates do leave the facility, Corrections practices "intensive supervision" inside the community, officials say, keeping them on the straight and narrow, and out of trouble.
"It's really been a change in philosophy," Ward said. "The day an offender gets to us, we want him thinking about getting back into the community."
Byars, a former family court judge, said the focus is inspired by a similar program instituted by the Department of Juvenile Justice with its inmates, working with troubled youths to make sure they don't grow up to become adult offenders.
"When time has passed, and they've aged out, Juvenile Justice has crashed," Byars said. "It's really gone down. They're tearing down prisons."
Byars wants to emulate that example. Since he came to the job in 2011, he says his department has closed 1.5 adult prisons, including an institute for holding low-level offenders on the grounds of the department itself outside Columbia. At Turbeville, which is currently operating at 73.8 percent capacity, the institution has even downsized a few employees because of falling incarceration.
The key, Byars said, is getting inmates trained to enter the working world upon release and starting a new life as a productive member of the community.
"We teach them job skills and follow them when they get out," he said. "It's hard enough to get a job when you have a record. If you have no skills in addition to having a record, it's impossible."
Likewise, Haley sees dropping recidivism rates as another facet of improving the state's economy and growing the job market, since rehabilitated offenders can improve productivity rates and lower unemployment rates. She sees the new corrections budget as "righting a wrong" in state government.
"Our job is to get everybody in and out (of there) safely, and train the prisoners who are getting out to go out and lead a productive life," she said.
Reach Bristow Marchant at (803) 774-1272.
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