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History repeats itself at state's prisons
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

DEC. 8, 2002 -- If you want to know the practical impact of millions of dollars of budget cuts, look no further than the state Department of Corrections.

The state's prison system again is overcrowded and unsafe. Some 1,670 inmates live three to a cell in quarters designed for two. Another 300 inmates sleep on mattresses in gymnasiums or storage closets.

Over the last two years, the prison population has expanded an additional 1,500 inmates to about 23,000 people. At the same time, budget cuts led to elimination of 1,000 Corrections jobs, including 670 guards.

"Having this kind of overcrowding could really create a problem," said state Rep. Joe Brown, a Columbia Democrat who chairs a House committee that oversees the prison system. "This tells me we don't need to cut their budget, but need to add to it."

Bob McAlister, a Columbia public relations executive who served as chief of staff to Gov. Carroll Campbell, spent 13 years as a volunteer minister to death row inmates. He says problems at the state's prisons shouldn't be underestimated.

"Corrections officers are as important to law enforcement and public safety as any other component of the criminal justice system," he said.

But with fewer guards, those who remain are in an increasingly stressful and dangerous environment, McAlister added.

"When you cut about 670 officers, you have essentially cut out the lagoon between the prisoners and general population."

State Sen. Mike Fair, the Greenville Republican who chairs the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said lawmakers need to relieve pressure on guards.

"They are doing a remarkable job under the strain they're under," he said. "[They are] people of courage who are trying to do what is right and not complain about it."

But they need to see some light at the end of the tunnel, he added. Fair said he believed relief was ahead in the form of additional funding in the next budget.

For now, however, times remain tight. With the state short about $348 million this year, Corrections faces another $14 million to $17 million cut next week when the legislature meets in special session.

At this point, it's not clear how the Department will deal with the cut. It has a plan, but it's not releasing it. While department spokesperson Cheryl Bates-Lee admitted prisons were overcrowded, this is all she's saying for now:

"This agency will continue to carry out its mission, which is to protect the public, protect the employees and protect the inmates."

Some 20 years ago, the state's prison system was overcrowded and dangerous. A lawsuit by inmates led the state to enter into a consent agreement that allowed federal oversight of the system to reduce overcrowding, increase the staff and make improvements.

In the 11-year period state prisons were under federal oversight, South Carolina's corrections system became one of the best in the nation, according to Columbia lawyer Gaston Fairey. During that time, the state lowered violence, improved conditions and reduced the rate of return criminals, said Fairey, who represented the inmates who sued the state in 1982.

When the consent agreement ended in 1996, he warned conditions could worsen. Now in just six years, history repeated itself.

While lawmakers can improve things dramatically by infusing the corrections system with more money to hire guards and open mothballed prisons, one big change wouldn't cost much money, but would require political courage - - more work-release programs.

Currently, only 2 percent of the state's inmates are in work-release programs. By expanding to a work-release system that allowed more low-security-risk inmates to work in the community to earn the cost of their incarcerations, the state could save a lot of money, Fairey said.

"But work-release programs require you to take chances on people," he added. "And when you take chances on people, some are going to fail."

Lawmakers with real courage will accept some inmates will fail. With the tight budget in mind, they should take a chance on expanding work release. Not only would it save money for taxpayers. But it could help transform some inmates into productive citizens.

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