COLUMBIA - With a wary eye toward recent violence in Mississippi prisons and acknowledging the problems that have plagued his own prisons, the South Carolina Corrections chief is asking lawmakers to make a more than $100 million investment into his agency.
Most of the money would go toward one-time needs such as repairs to fences; elevated, secured platforms that allow guards to see an entire wing while being separated from inmates; and modernizing the air conditioning and heating systems.
Corrections Director Bryan Stirling also wants to replace old prison locks that use a single, oversize physical key that looks like something out of a black-and-white TV show with electronic locks, and doors that can be opened and closed remotely.
Other money would go toward creating a unit to investigate criminal gangs behind bars, raise salaries for nurses, doctors and other prison health care workers, and retain guards, who now make on average $8,000 a year more than their 2014 annual average salary of $27,000.
"We're asking for a lot of money," South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told a panel of three House members in the first of about a half-dozen hearings on the request. "We have a lot of needs."
Most of Stirling's requests have the backing of South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who included them in his budget plan earlier this month.
Lawmakers seem more receptive, too. Stirling has been given more money each year since the agency's budget was about $434 million in 2014 when he took over, even through the state now has 3,000 fewer prisoners.
The problems in Mississippi prisons are also on everyone's minds. Five inmates were killed in an outbreak of violence in Mississippi's prison system between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3, and two additional Mississippi inmates were beaten to death this week.
The average salary for a Mississippi prison guard is about $27,000 a year, about the same amount as the average guard was making in South Carolina in 2014.
One key to stemming violence in the short term in South Carolina was paying guards more to get and retain better-quality employees, Stirling said.
Stirling is now turning toward keeping his best guards with targeted raises and other retention efforts.
The director's request for more money includes $1.6 million for colonoscopies and mammograms for older inmates, $16 million for a secured centralized warehouse that would reduce the number of trucks - and opportunities for contraband - that enter prisons, $3 million for improved radios and $15 million to upgrade fire alarms.
The key to the security upgrades in the new electronic system for cell doors. In some prisons, the locks no longer work. Investigators said that led to the powder keg that allowed a fight at Lee Correctional Institution in April 2018 to end up as a riot that spread across wings in the prison, killing seven inmates.
During Wednesday's hearing, Stirling held up a key that unlocks every door in a wing of one of his prisons, carefully holding the bottom so the cuts in the metal that match the tumblers to the lock are hidden from crafty inmates and others with plenty of time to try to make a copy.
Prison leaders estimate guards spend 80% of their days locking and unlocking each door individually. And if an inmate overpowers a guard and gets that key, other employees are powerless, unlike an electronic system where all cells and units could be locked down by guards from anywhere.
"If they want to attack someone, they have the key," Stirling said. "If they want to just let everybody out, they have the key."
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