State House

South Carolina State House: Prison Budget Imperiled

Hiring freeze enacted after lawmakers decline to provide funding for new correctional officers …

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A freeze in hiring has been put in place at the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) in the wake of uncertainty over the agency’s budget for the coming fiscal year – including funding for hundreds of new correctional officers.

This media outlet began digging into SCDC’s perilous budget situation last week after we received a message on our tip line about a rumored “hiring freeze” at the agency.

“There are no jobs listed on the state website,” our tipster noted. “Overnight, nearly 100 jobs were wiped off the site.”

Our tipster was harshly critical of SCDC leadership, prompting us to reach out to the agency for comment.

As we waited to hear back, reporter Anne Emerson of WCIV TV 4 (ABC – Charleston, S.C.) published the following report on the situation …

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A SCDC spokesperson declined to address specifics about its the agency’s budget – or respond to our request for comment about the hiring freeze. However, a source familiar with the situation stressed that correctional leaders were engaged in an ongoing dialogue with leaders in the House about their recent budget request.

“We are in continuing discussion with House leadership about our funding needs,” the source told us.

Several other sources close to the agency – including two former high-level SCDC officials – were less reticent in sharing their thoughts on the situation. According to them, House ways and means committee members failed to fund two key correctional initiatives – chief among them a roughly $35 million appropriation intended to hire 422 new employees (including 348 new correctional officers).

Vacancies at SCDC had soared to nearly 50 percent during the Covid-19 pandemic, but salary increases approved by lawmakers in the most recent budget helped lower the vacancy rate to nearly 30 percent. Additional hires were envisioned for the coming fiscal year to bring things in even better balance … but the House committee did not approve the agency’s funding request for these positions.

“SCDC had several funding requests in this year’s budget proposal, one of which was for additional funding to hire more officers and staff,” one source close to the agency told us.

When this money was not included in the initial legislative budget draft, SCDC “had to make a decision to stop hiring for now so it would not have a deficit at the end of this fiscal year.”

Hence the “hiring freeze” tip we received …

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As noted, in last year’s budget SCDC benefited from long-overdue salary increases for law enforcement – increases which helped the agency fill previous vacancies and retain key staff. For the past quarter of a century, SCDC has been able to run surpluses thanks to staff vacancies – money which was routed to other critical needs within the agency.

That option is no longer on the table, it would appear …

The root of the problem? Lawmakers typically reject correctional budget requests that are not linked to staffing – and more specifically, to the hiring of correctional officers. This forces agency leaders to rely on surplus money from vacancies – or “slippage” funds – to cover gaps in providing food, clothing, housing and health care for inmates.

“For decades SCDC has been using slippage to meet these (inmate) needs,” one of our sources explained. “It’s easier to put money on the line for staffing than it is to put it on the line for inmate expenses.”

Funding for staff vacancies wasn’t the only item House budget writers refused to grant. A critical public safety initiative was also left out of the current version of SCDC’s budget, we are told. This initiative – a $34 million prison cell phone blocking program – would have provided hardware and operating costs tied to the blocking of individual cell phones based on their IMEI (or “International Mobile Equipment Identity”) number.

I referenced this program in a story published last fall, touting the success of a pilot program implemented at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C.

My media outlet supported the statewide implementation of the cell phone blocking initiative – and I support SCDC’s bid to further lower its vacancy rate for correctional officers and other core staff.

As I have often written, prisons are a core function of government. Like cops and courts (and roads and bridges), they should be funded commensurately. Given the extent to which state lawmakers have ballooned government over the past few years – and given the extent to which they seem intent on doing so again this year – it would be reckless not to beef up our correctional staff. It would also be tremendously detrimental to public safety if leaders failed to seize an opportunity to shut down the crime wave that continues to operate based on contraband prison cell phones.

Count on our media outlet to keep tabs on this debate as the state’s increasingly unwieldy budget moves through the House on its way to the State Senate.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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10 comments

Squishy123 (the original) February 28, 2024 at 2:17 pm

The House is more concerned with giving teachers yet another raise/bonus this year to those who only work nine months out of the year. The focus is to get starting pay for teachers to $50,000, or in other words $5,555.56 per month or $66,6667 per year equivalent. For a teacher’s starting pay. State employees, except for teachers, have gone through years where they received low or no COLA, teacher’s get annual decent raises and come back the following year screaming for more pay. They’ll never stop. Teachers know what the job pays before they even declare it as their major in college. If you want more than what the current pay is, pick a better paying major… but just be aware that you’ll have to work a full 12 months out of the year.

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CongareeCatfish Top fan February 28, 2024 at 3:08 pm

I know some blue collar guys that work in state government…every time they hear anything about teacher pay raises they practically spit and say basically the same thing. I kinda get it, but there is also the issue of the labor market and what teachers have to put up with today…because on the other hand if you ask almost any teacher that is not in a high-end magnet program you will hear one horror story after another of how distopian our schools have become with the violence, filth, and disrespect they have to put up with. I know one midlands area teacher who actually attended the high school she now teaches at who has been to something like 3 or 4 students’ funerals in one year. That is soul-crushing kind of stuff.
Unless you are in law enforcement, the prison system, or taking care of mental patients, most state employees don’t have to think about having to wade into a brawl to pull apart fighting teenagers and taking a punch or two to the mouth or eyes, or having their car keyed or beaten with a bat by a student. Alot of people in state government who make almost double the entry level salary would not be a teacher even if they could keep their current pay grade. So yeah, I get somewhat the argument that “you know what the pay is before you even get there” but at the same time when the retention of teachers is pretty crappy because they can get better jobs elsewhere, eventually you have to face the reality of the labor market and do something to stop the attrition.

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JustSomeGuy Top fan February 29, 2024 at 10:23 am

I agree with both of you. What a starting teacher makes to work for 190 days a year is pretty dang good. Having said that, I don’t know what my price tag would be to do that job, but it’d be BIG! Dealing with young people isn’t my thing.

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Squishy123 (the original) March 3, 2024 at 6:29 pm

Would your number come down if you were able to be in charge of your classroom knowing that the administration had your back? Kid acts up in class, he goes to the office where he’s sent to in school suspension. Instead of what happens today, a kid beats up a resource officer and goes back to class. I can remember as a Freshman watching a principle and coach slam a kid up against the lockers putting a dent into the door because he mouthed off to a teacher. But that was back when the punishment you got at school was nothing compared to what you were in for when dad got home.

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Anonymous February 28, 2024 at 2:21 pm

The House not approving funding for cell phone blocking simply shows you that all of the lawyers in the State House don’t want those that fund their livelihood to be disrupted while incarcerated. Just think how much Todd Rutherford alone makes from his clients being able to have cell phones while locked up.

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CongareeCatfish Top fan February 28, 2024 at 2:56 pm

Preach!

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SubZeroIQ February 28, 2024 at 5:39 pm

Well, if it isn’t the same FITSNews who cries to high heaven every time a presumed-innocent is given bond and every time a convict is sentenced to less than the maximum or every time a sentence is reduced for reasons allowed by statute!!!!!
Where do you think staffing for those jails and prisons you want to fill with people would come from?
And it isn’t a matter of money alone.
It takes a special person to be an incarceration guard and not become a criminal him/herself. Society can produce only so many of those people; therefore, it should limit the number of incarcerated people in proportion to the available officers.
Society should be smart on crime, not rabidly tough on crime.
Looking forward to your tune changing, FITS, when your source of ads and sponsorship changes.

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Squishy123 (the original) February 29, 2024 at 10:01 am

Can those who are cast out of the prison system because of the inmate to guard ratio becomes higher than what you want come live in your neighborhood?

Bring back truth in sentencing, if you’re sentenced to 10 years, you serve 10 years… not 6. If you murder someone, no pleading it down to involuntary manslaughter.

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Squishy123 (the original) February 29, 2024 at 10:05 am

The easy answer is commercialize the prison system. Companies will build prisons and control prisoners better than the state will.

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Dave D. March 18, 2024 at 12:48 pm

SubZeroIQ is a fitting name. Just because people call you that a lot doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a compliment.

As for your comment, a society that’s ‘rabid’ on crime is a society that has less crime once the criminals are removed from said society. Of course, the crime statistics start out higher – until the majority of criminals are no longer on the streets. Then again, once people get soft on crime and let the criminals back out on the streets, it peaks again.

At this point, Commifornia (AKA California) should be the example. They released “inmates” throughout the state and now have crimewaves like never seen before.

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