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SC Prison Busts: A Beginning

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Yesterday’s news that fourteen employees of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) had been arrested by federal authorities in connection with a prison smuggling scandal is a big deal.

The story – exclusively reported by Meg Kinnard of The Associated Press – represents a high-profile acknowledgement of a serious corruption problem within our state’s correctional system.

We acknowledged this problem last fall in one of our lengthy reports detailing the roots of escalating prison violence.

In our report, we pointed out that the operation of a correctional system was (is) a core function of government.  Unfortunately in South Carolina, despite year after year of government growth “there are not enough guards working in Palmetto prisons – and the guards who are working there are not sufficiently trained, equipped or compensated.”

As a result, many of our state’s correctional officers “become part of the problem after they are hired because it’s far more lucrative (and safe) to smuggle contraband inside the prisons than to try and keep it out.”

Basically, these guards become suppliers for rival gangs – smuggling drugs, cell phones, tobacco and “green dot cards” (or prepaid credit cards) into our state’s prisons.

In an article posted just a day prior to the announcement of the indictments, Kinnard reported that correctional officers were allegedly “complicit” in the prison cell phone epidemic.  Boy, was that ever prophetic.  Her report (and the subsequent federal indictments) debunked the narrative advanced by governor Henry McMaster – who has argued that a shortage of prison guards was the cause of the smuggling (and that the smuggling was the cause of the violence).

Seriously … ask any family member of an inmate who has visited them in prison this year.  Let them describe how they are searched upon entering the institutions.  Contraband isn’t flowing into our state’s prisons because there aren’t enough guards.  It’s flowing because far too many guards are part of the problem.

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Obviously, there is a shortage of correctional staff – although recruiting and retention efforts undertaken in recent years by embattled SCDC director Bryan Stirling (above) have begun to shore up the ranks of correctional officers.  Of course if these officers remain underpaid and overworked, nothing is going to change.

Faced with low wages and high risk, guards will keep chosing “gangs over government.”

“The cell phones are not the problem it is the gang mentality,” one inmate told us last fall.  “The culture of violence.  The breeding of corruption.”

That problem is exacerbated by “renegades,” or gang members who refuse to abide by the uneasy truces established between these criminal syndicates.

According to our sources, it was renegade gang members who initiated the deadly slaughter earlier this month at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. that left seven inmates dead.

“Renegades don’t play by the rules,” one source close to the Palmetto State’s gang culture told us last week. “You can’t control a renegade.”

How do we solve those fundamental problems?

Good question …

There are other “root issues” plaguing our prisons, too.  In an article months ago entitled “Culture of Chaos,” we noted that statewide prison lockdowns implemented in the aftermath of outbreaks of violence contribute to an increasingly combustible environment.  These lockdowns leave thousands of inmates to sit and stew for days on end (through no fault of their own, in most cases).

When they are finally let out of their cages, they erupt …

“We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again: That’s a powder keg waiting to explode,” we wrote.

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Also, it’s important to note that violence behind bars has been going on for decades – we’ve just got a front row seat to it now thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices within our correctional institutions.  As Kinnard’s most recent report noted, cell phones aren’t believed to be the cause of prison violence because they are so ubiquitous behind bars.

They are, however, instrumental in bringing us graphic depictions of this violence – depictions which are then played and replayed online and on the television news.

Mobile devices are also instrumental in communications between inmates and reporters.

Kinnard has quoted anonymous inmates extensively in her recent reporting, and this news site has been quoting them for months.  In fact, a prisoner using a mobile device tipped us off to a fire set inside Lee Correctional Institution earlier this week.

McMaster has been pushing to jam cell phone signals behind bars – in violation of a mandate from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) – and we have reluctantly come around to the belief that this is an appropriate solution.  Of course, it’s worth noting that jamming these signals will only add explosive force to the “powder keg.”

Like those of us on the outside, prisoners have grown accustomed to using their mobile devices to decompress.  And while this is indeed a depressing commentary on just how serious the contraband problem has become – it is nonetheless a fact of life behind bars.

Which means it must be taken into account …

“They think it’s bad now?” one inmate told us bluntly. “Watch what happens when they jam the phones.”

Again, there are no easy answers here.

This news site has outlined several solutions in the past, but we are clearly looking at a decades-long process here – one that must necessarily involve a fundamental reassessment/ reinvention of our approach to the correctional function of government (as opposed to just “reform” of a particular system).

Bottom line?  Our state must rethink corrections itself … not just plow more resources into a broken system (which is basically all our elected officials are good for).

“The ultimate objective of any correctional institution must be to contribute to public safety by keeping dangerous individuals contained and reforming (to the extent possible) those inmates willing to change the trajectory of their lives,” we wrote last fall.

Separating the wheat from the chaff, in other words.

It’s past time South Carolina figured out how to do that … because if it doesn’t start soon, a bad situation is only going to get further out of hand.

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