Number of assaults on COs, inmate deaths rise in SC prisons

Officials say the increase is partly due to contraband slipping into prisons and hiring enough COs to staff prisons

By John Monk
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The number of inmates slain in S.C. prisons more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.

Meanwhile, inmate assaults on prison staffers also increased – from 21 in 2015, to 33 in 2016, to 37 in 2017. In all of those incidents, the assaults required medical attention for prison staffers.

Razor wire protects a perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016.
Razor wire protects a perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

In 2017, 12 inmates were killed by other inmates, up from five in 2016, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections. In 2015, only three inmates were killed by other inmates.

The increase in slayings and assaults should not be a surprise, says S.C. Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling.

“I’ve been warning about this for a long time,” said Stirling, who attributes the increase, in part, to more cell phones and other contraband slipping into prisons, as well as to continued problems in hiring enough corrections officers to staff South Carolina’s prisons.

Critics say violence in state prisons has spiked to intolerable levels.

“Inmate assaults and killings have grown beyond a critical mass. I just can’t believe how many there are,” said Carter Elliott, a Georgetown attorney who has represented inmates and their families in numerous legal actions against the Department.

Prisoners aren’t angels, but they have a constitutional right to a secure environment, Elliott said. “They are there to pay back society for the crimes they did, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be safe.”

Stirling said other reasons behind the rise in prison violence include:

  • Chronic understaffing that leaves some areas of the state’s 21 prisons without eyes-on supervision, Stirling said. The prison system’s 1,872 front-line correctional officers work 12-hour shifts, but the department continues to have 652 vacancies for officers.
  • The higher percentage of violent prisoners among the prison system’s nearly 20,000 inmates. “We used to be 60 percent non-violent prisoners and 40 percent non-violent, but the number has flipped – now we are at 68 percent violent,” Stirling said. In part, that is because sentencing reforms, adopted since 2011, have resulted in more non-violent criminals serving non-prison sentences.
  • Disputes between inmates on a range of issues, including gang rivalries.

As for cell phones, Stirling said, they are illegal but their widespread availability makes it easier for inmates to get money by engaging in illegal activities. That, in turn, leads to criminal rivalries, which can lead to violence, Stirling said.

“These folks are physically incarcerated, but they can continue their criminal ways behind bars,” Stirling said. “Now, they are fighting over real money.”

In 2017, prison officials confiscated 6,318 cell phones.

‘Nusiance’ slayings in unsupervised ward

In 2017’s worst prison killings, four inmates living in an unsupervised mental health ward at Kirkland Correctional Institution were strangled in less than 30 minutes last April. Two fellow prisoners, already serving life sentences, now face four counts of murder each.

At the time, sources told The State the four slain inmates were killed because their accused killers regarded them as “nuisances.”

Also, two inmates were killed by other prisoners at Lee Correctional Institution in separate fights in 2017, one in July and one in November.

In some cases, it is hard to determine the cause of a prison killing.

“It’s hard to investigate these matters in prison because folks just aren’t going to tell,” Stirling said. “That’s just the prison culture. You see something, you don’t say anything.”

But Stirling blames part of the rise in prison violence on cells phones smuggled into prisons.

For years, Stirling has tried to get federal approval for state prison officials to block cell phone signals at prisons, an effort he will press again in the coming months. But big communications companies — like Verizon and ATT — oppose the idea.

One of the most dangerous things that corrections officers do is enter cells to seize smart phones, Stirling said. “When we go to take a cell phone from an inmate – that’s their life line. It’s cost them a lot of money.”

A team of officers is needed to enter a cell to seize a cell phone, Stirling said. “You can’t just do it one-on-one.”

Still, some assaults happen when officers try to get a prisoner’s phone, he said.

Hopeful signs?

There are some hopeful signs, Stirling said.

Corrections is running a pilot project using a device that can pinpoint when and where someone is using a cell phone.

Also, the department’s number of front-line officers has increased slightly.

After years of declining numbers, the department finished 2017 with 80 more officers than it started with, he said. “That’s quite a swing.”

Stirling attributes the increased staffing to the department’s decision to hike starting salaries by $2,500 or so, pay retention and referral bonuses as well as overtime, and increased advertising.

“We’re looking at every avenue we can to make prisoners safer,” Stirling said.

Said attorney Elliott, “There is always going to be some violence in jails — but not like it is now.”

©2018 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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