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Laura Hudson: SC Lawmakers Play Starring Role In Prison Problems

General Assembly in no position to criticize agency’s leadership, staff …

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by LAURA HUDSON || If anyone is still wondering how South Carolina’s prison system has degraded into such a condition where upheavals like the April 7 incident at Lee Correctional Institute that left seven inmates dead and many other injured are commonplace, they should look long and hard at the S.C. General Assembly.

For too many years to count, our elected members of the S.C. Senate and House of Representatives have underfunded the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC). At the same time, some legislators have had the self-serving audacity to criticize the agency’s leadership and staff for not doing more with that ever-decreasing amount of money.

To be fair, some progress was made with additional funding in fiscal year 2017-2018 by the General Assembly.  The overall average starting salary for correctional officers in the current fiscal year was $33,289.  With overtime, eligible correctional officers earn $41,964.  The department is awaiting the budget for fiscal year 2018-2019, which has a proposed increase, but finding eligible persons willing to be a corrections officer in such a volatile environment is difficult to impossible.

I don’t think you’ll see any of our elected officials applying.  The only time you may see a member of the legislature visiting a prison is when they are attorneys representing a client or they have been found guilty of corruption.

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I’m sure that if you ask SCDC Director Bryan Stirling, he’d be the first to tell you he would love to have better job training and counseling for inmates, improved working conditions for correctional officers, more programs and staff for comprehensive drug treatment and mental health programs along with effective reentry programs for inmates soon to be coming back into society.  Worthwhile goals are nothing but pipe dreams when you can’t pay enough for people to work in overcrowded and very dangerous conditions.

Is it any wonder why many SCDC employees have to work second jobs just to make ends meet?  Is it also any wonder why it seems that the inmates are in charge of our prisons?

For a legislative committee this year to grill director Stirling and his staff on their supposed “failures,” is like beating a horse for not running when its legs are hobbled.

Prisons aren’t supposed to be luxurious.  We should provide food, mental and physical health care, education, career preparation, counseling, substance abuse treatment and in-house labor opportunities.  Programs to help the reentry process into society are needed as well. The sad reality is very different.  Inmates attack each other, destroy or stop up their own toilets and trash their environment, all while knowing there’s little if anything the correctional officers will do about it because they are hopelessly outnumbered.  Contraband is widespread.

I recall a quote from a now-deceased state representative from Lexington County who once said, “South Carolina will have a better prison system when we get a better class of prisoner.”

Maybe what we really need is a better class of legislators.

Laura Hudson is the executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council (SCCVC), the chief nonprofit organization in South Carolina advocating the development of crime victims’ rights and services.

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