SC chief seeks more security for riskiest prisons

Meg Kinnard, Associated Press
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's prisons agency is seeking more money to better protect officers who guard the state's most violent inmates.

Department of Corrections Director Bill Byars told a House panel on Tuesday that the state's overall prison population has gone down. But Byars says prisons that house South Carolina's most dangerous offenders are in desperate need of additional guards.

"I have facilities that are maxxed out," Byars said. "It's hard to get anyone to come in and work with these people."

South Carolina's inmate count on Tuesday was under 22,000 for the first time during his two-year tenure, Byars told lawmakers. But Byars and Bob Ward, one of his deputy directors, said the percentage of inmates who have committed violent crimes has gone up, further strapping already strained maximum-security facilities.

Thirteen percent of agency jobs are vacant, Byars said, meaning the ration of inmates to Corrections employees is more than nine to one.

"We are short-staffed," Byars said. "I am still millions upon millions of dollars upside down."

In her $6.3 billion budget plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has recommended spending an additional $10 million in 2013-14 on prison upgrades, including cameras, metal detectors and wands at prisons statewide. The money also would replace weapons bought as far back as the 1960s and give 3 percent pay raises to officers at the state's eight maximum-security prisons.

The request includes building two watch towers at Lee Correctional, a maximum-security prison in Bishopville where inmates took guards hostage twice last year. In September, inmates held an officer for about five hours before releasing him with minor injuries. Some prisoners used contraband cellphones to call the prison's main number and give information to authorities, including how the guard was hidden in a broom closet, according to prison officials.

In June, state police blew open a door to rescue a guard after a six-hour standoff in a building that houses Lee's lockdown or isolation cells. Corrections officials said that officer had been dressed in an inmate's uniform to disguise him.

"We are sending them in there every day and not giving them the tools to protect themselves," Haley said when she presented her budget last month. "You are not giving money to prisoners. You're giving money to people who keep prisoners from harming you."

The Corrections Department carried forward more than $7 million from its previous budget. Deputy Director Martha Roof said that money has helped build some security posts at maximum-security prisons, fund training efforts and expand the agency's special investigations team.

Haley's budget proposal also seeks funds to hire 25 agents to supervise parolees, 10 natural resources officers, 18 state troopers and 15 employees at the State Law Enforcement Division, including agents and lab technicians. Haley also wants to provide all troopers wireless access in their vehicles and upgrade prison officers' safety.

State lawmakers on Wednesday will hear details about Haley's spending request for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.


Kinnard can be reached at