SC Corrections seeks $100 million to fix long-term facility issues in state's prisons

Filling more than 1,300 security vacancies and competing with county jails and hospitals for talent is also a focus in the budget request

By Joseph Bustos
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With long-term infrastructure issues still outstanding, the Department of Corrections is asking for an additional $193 million for its budget next year, more than half of which would go towards deferred maintenance.

Corrections says it needs $100 million in one-time money to pay for fire alarm upgrades, prison cell lock replacements, HVAC improvements and fencing projects among other things.

But filling more than 1,300 security vacancies and competing with county jails and hospitals for talent also is a focus in the Department of Corrections budget request for the 2021-22 fiscal year.

In its request, the agency also asked for $55.5 million in recurring dollars for staff raises, new positions, medical supplies and inmate health screenings among other things.

An additional $38.2 million of the agency's request is for one-time equipment needs.

Many prison system security needs were brought to the forefront after a 2018 riot at the Lee Correctional Institution that led to seven inmate deaths and 22 people injured. Inmates using illegal cell phones was partly to blame for the riot.

Much of the Corrections budget request is similar to the request it made for 2020-21, department officials said. However, the General Assembly kept spending levels the same as the 2019-20 fiscal year because the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy and led to a drop in state revenues.

In the spring when the House sent a budget proposal to the Senate, $100 million was included to address security and safety upgrades at prisons.

House budget writers included $9 million to help recruit and retain officers for health service positions and $3 million for a gang enforcement security team. When the Senate made its changes to the budget and sent it back to the House, the proposal was referred back to committee, where it died when the session ended.

The state will be short on money while many agencies will be asking for help.

The state expects to have $1.2 billion in new revenue to allocate for the 2021-22 fiscal year, but only $182 million is recurring money, which can be used for ongoing expenses such as employee salaries and health care costs.

In its budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, Corrections wants an additional $14 million to increase pay for its corrections officers, investigators and medical personnel and food service staff, among other positions.

For positions such as doctors, nurses, pharmacy staff, dentists, and substance abuse counselors, proposed raises range from 5% to 15%.

"We're looking to retain and hire nurses and doctors and medical professionals. We're at a disadvantage competing against the local hospitals here. They pay more," Stirling said. "We're not paying as much and we're not as competitive so we need to pay more to be competitive."

Trying to attract employees has been a continuing effort in recent years. For example, the proposed pay raises are in addition to signing $15,000 bonuses given to nurses who work at least two years for Corrections.

Stirling also has worked to increase corrections officers' pay over the years so the department is more competitive with other states and local county jails.

Under the budget proposal, prison system investigators also would receive 15% raises, a pay bump they did not receive when other law enforcement officers in the state received pay increases two years ago, the agency said.

Forty people both inside and outside of South Carolina prisons were recently indicted for their alleged parts in a criminal gang operation, law enforcement agencies recently announced. The charges included murder for hire, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Stirling said investment in the corrections system over the year has helped lead to lower recidivism rates in South Carolina.

"We say 'Hey, here are our needs.' We lay them out and then we can make a decision," Stirling said. " Gov. McMaster has been very good at supporting law enforcement, over the years since he's been governor and we've seen that, (with) him meeting our requests, time and time again for raises for officers to giving us money for re-entry and things of that nature, which help public safety."

Corrections also wants to add 82 new medical positions for hepatitis C, addiction recovery and medical treatment and mental health treatment.

Without paying for in house medical staff, Corrections has to take prisoners outside of the institutions, which requires security staff to leave the prison and stretch staff thin.

"If we don't do this then we have to take them outside medical, and that's a cost," Stirling said.

But as the General Assembly held off on a new budget during the last session, it meant long-needed infrastructure upgrades did not take place.

The Department of Corrections is proposing $100 million worth projects, including upgrading prison cell locking systems in order for officers to be more efficient and safer when opening and closing cells, as well as roof replacements and air conditioning replacements among other things.

Fixing the equipment currently in place is difficult as parts may not be made anymore.

"Replacing them saves tax dollars, I believe, in the long run, because the systems will run more efficiently," Stirling said. "We won't be spending man-hours, we won't be spending taxpayer dollars to throw good money after bad."

Proposed infrastructure improvements

Here is the list of $100 million worth of proposed infrastructure improvements by the Department of Corrections.

— Fire alarm replacement in nine institutions: $15 million

— Medium and maximum-security prison cell locking system replacement for six institutions: $39 million

— HVAC Cooling/Heating Replacement for six institutions: $11.5 million

— Agency-wide increased internal fencing for eight institutions: $15.5 million

— Agency-wide boiler/chiller replacement for eight institutions: $3 million

— Perimeter razor wire upgrade for nine institutions: $4.2 million

— Roof replacement at three institutions: $2.5 million

— Overhead electrical grid for Manning Correctional Institute: $1.3 million

— Fiber optic cable upgrades for electronic control systems at 11 institutions: $7.9 million

(c)2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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