Report: 23 SC inmates held past end of their sentences

DOC officials blame paperwork mixups, 'human error'

Emily Bohatch
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Twenty-three inmates have been imprisoned in S.C. Department of Corrections facilities beyond the end of their sentences, according to a list the agency gave state lawmakers last week.

Of those former inmates, two served more than two years past the sentence a judge set for them, and five more were incarcerated for at least an extra year, according to Correction’s list, which was sent to a state House Legislative Oversight subcommittee last week. The committee is tasked with completing a comprehensive review of the department.

Prison staff work at Lee Correctional Institution on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Bishopville, S.C.
Prison staff work at Lee Correctional Institution on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Bishopville, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

The longest an inmate was held past the end of his or her sentence was two years and seven months.

The list of 23 inmates is the latest look at an ongoing issue at Corrections with inmates’ sentences being calculated incorrectly. The agency first learned of the problem in March and continues to audit inmate records whenever a case of an error comes up.

The document shows exactly how much extra time they served, the reason for the mistake and how the issue was discovered, but offers no details on the inmates’ identities or why they were in prison. The document marks the first public mention of all but two of the 23 cases. Two inmates who were kept too long were revealed in previous Legislative Oversight meetings and reported by The State.

Department of Corrections officials intended to discuss the three most recent cases — an inmate kept an extra year and two months, an inmate kept for an extra 24 days and an inmate who was kept an extra 14 days whose cases were discovered during a recent audit — last week during a legislative oversight subcommittee meeting, department spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said.

State prisons Director Bryan Stirling chalked most of the cases of inmates spending more time than required behind bars up to “human error.”

“When an inmate spends one day longer than required behind bars, it’s not acceptable,” Stirling said in a statement to The State.

A paperwork error led to the inmate serving extra time in all but two of the 23 cases. In the two other cases, one inmate was awaiting a GPS from the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services and one was kept in prison an extra 24 days because another agency did not turn over that inmate’s records in a timely manner, Shain said.

In one case of a paperwork error this year, an inmate’s sentencing order was amended but not updated at Corrections. The update “caused the release date and parole eligibility to change,” Shain said.

The reported cases of prolonged incarceration date back to 2014, when an inmate was held for an extra two years and four months because a Department of Corrections data analyst incorrectly entered their offense into the prison system’s computer database, according to the document.

In 2019, 16 inmates were released after serving time beyond the end of their sentences. Three were discovered in October alone.

The new document provides insight into the scope of the Department of Corrections’ reoccurring paperwork issues that are causing men and women to spend more days behind bars than legally required. The Department of Corrections is doing nothing to compensate the former inmates, and Stirling has said he expects lawsuits to be filed on their behalf.

Echoing predictions of lawsuits, S.C. Representative Micah Caskey, a Lexington Republican on the panel overseeing Corrections, has said the state currently does not have many options for compensating the inmates.

The errors are most commonly made when offenders are first brought to the Department of Corrections. There, records analysts receive a sentencing sheet from the court where the inmate’s trial was held, which details exactly how much time that person should serve, whether they should get any special credits and any other specific terms outlined by the judge.

But these sentencing sheets can be riddled with unclear wording or unfilled sections, which leave Corrections analysts confused, former Director of Classification and Inmate Records Joette Scarborough testified in late March. Some analysts conduct their own research to fill in the blanks, while others reach out to court officials or the department’s attorneys.

Additionally, analysts rely on information from local jails in South Carolina’s 46 counties, which can be incomplete or completely missing, Caskey said.

“They’re trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, but they can’t go to one place to get all the pieces for the jigsaw,” Caskey said.

As a result, data can be incorrectly entered into the system and inmates end up stuck in state prisons longer than a judge intended.

The department has implemented a number of changes to their data entry process since March, when it was first reported by The State that ten inmates were mistakenly released from prison before the end of their sentences. The day The State broke the story, the department began requiring two auditors to review the records of each inmate as they become eligible for release, Shain said.

In July, the department discovered two more mistakes: one inmate was held for nearly two years past the end of their sentence and another was mistakenly released weeks early.

In August, the department began an audit of records for every inmate in custody and, in September, it launched a new system of double blind audits, Shain said. Under the new system, two analysts enter the data into Corrections’ system, and if they calculate different release dates, a lawyer will then review the paperwork. The department is currently hiring an attorney to perform that task.

On Oct. 3, the department began an audit of records of inmates who were incarcerated because their probation was revoked after discovering that an inmate in that category served two and a half extra months.

The department has also discussed teaming up with the S.C. Department of Court Administration to design a new computer system that would speak directly with court computers.

“We’re ready and willing to explore what it would take to make that work,” Stirling said, according to a statement.

But Caskey worries this will be an issue the department struggles with for months or even years to come.

“This is one that I think we should absolutely be solving,” Caskey said.

As the department has began tackling the long-term issue, though, officials have been willing to audit and re-audit inmate records, Caskey said. When a new inmate who served extra time is found, officials identify exactly where the error was made in calculating his or her release date and reexamine records of inmates who were admitted under similar circumstances.

“If they can catch one person, they’re making progress,” Caskey said.

Legislators Caskey and state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, visited Corrections’ men’s intake facility Monday to see just what goes into calculating release dates.

The trip showed the Lexington Republican that the Corrections’ issue with staffing — which casts a cloud over nearly every function of the department — extended to the records office, Caskey said.

But understaffing shouldn’t be an excuse for the end-of-sentence release issue, Caskey said. Corrections’ leaders should be “assuring they have the resources necessary” to make sure no inmate serves extra time, he added.

“Its not the fault of those people who are working there doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” Caskey said.

Clary said the Legislature will continue to work Corrections to solve the problem, adding that the subcommittee will likely call on officials from S.C. Court Administration to discuss the possibility of integrating systems with Corrections. He added, though, that creating a new computer system “is not something that is going to happen overnight.”

“The DOC is just like every other mega-agency that we have in South Carolina,” Clary said. “There are a lot of issues that we uncover, and I think that they are taking what we’re finding very seriously and that’s the reason they’re coming up with more of these situations.”

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