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Lawmakers, budget writers own blame for prison crisis

by Jon Ozmint


Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. AP Photo/Sean Rayford

A recent column in The Post and Courier by Steve Bailey started like this: “Here is what the people who run South Carolina’s prisons don’t want you to know: that a month before America’s deadliest riot in a quarter century they were warned that the state’s correctional system was operating with half the staff required to keep it safe.”

Mr. Bailey is a fine writer and, in the past, I have found him to be fair. But with this premise, he missed terribly.

Stretching back for almost two decades through multiple directors and administrators, including current corrections Director Bryan Stirling, the S.C. Department of Corrections has been sounding the proverbial fire alarm about underfunding the agency and the decades-long staffing crisis.

SCDC directors have repeatedly presented this precise issue to lawmakers, budget writers, news outlets, editorial boards and anyone who would listen. They have literally begged for relief. Whether measured on a per-inmate basis, a per-taxpayer basis or as a percentage of state budgets, South Carolina continually ranks in the bottom five states in funding for corrections.

Here’s a new opening paragraph for my friend: “Even while consistently outperforming its funding, SCDC has long sounded the proverbial alarm. Lawmakers have known for decades about the dangers of perennial funding neglect, salary issues and staffing shortages in SCDC. But, as with all of the other problems caused by their neglect of this core function of government, they simply don’t care.”

After years of witnessing budget writers ignore the warnings, it is not unreasonable to conclude that they actually want SCDC to continue to be understaffed. They’ve known for years about staffing and salary issues, but they don’t address them adequately because avoiding them serves their political purposes. They’ve known for years about rusted out fences, worn out equipment and crumbling infrastructure.

They say they care, of course, but they fail to provide adequate funding. They know that by underfunding and understaffing prisons, bad things will happen in SCDC. When bad things happen, lawmakers get to pontificate and showboat for the media and the public. I wish I had a penny for every time a reporter quoted a lawmaker claiming to care about what happens in prisons without asking why the Legislature refuses to adequately fund them.

Politically speaking, continuing to cripple corrections is a winning proposition for lawmakers who largely escape blame for the problems caused by their budgetary neglect. Unfortunately, in a legislatively dominated state like South Carolina, beating up on those responsible for delivering a constitutional prison system without constitutional resources may seem like speaking truth to power, but it is the easy way out. We read the same old “blame corrections” stories. After decades of blaming SCDC, funding for prisons is still among the lowest in the nation. Not a single legislative budget writer or committee has ever been targeted by any South Carolina news outlet over their glaring and indisputable neglect of this most core function of government.

The truth is that if SCDC delivered what the Legislature paid for, we’d have one of the worst prison systems in the nation. We would have inmates running loose on a daily basis. We’d have the highest inmate violence levels in the nation. We would be unable to feed or provide health care to inmates. We’d have no functioning weapons or emergency equipment. A recent, silly story that blamed SCDC for pipes clogged by inmates would be superfluous because there would be no functioning plumbing. Our recidivism rates would be among the highest in the nation.

Instead, by these and most other objective measures, SCDC provides a top tier correctional system despite inadequate funding. And the recidivism rate, perhaps the most important measure, is now among the lowest in the nation.

The leadership of SCDC and its employees succeed in spite of being set up to fail. They do this because they care, because their lives and the lives of others depend on their success; they do so in spite of being repeatedly asked to do the impossible. They succeed in spite of being repeatedly blamed for circumstances completely out of their control. They care about inmates more than all of the unaccountable and self-serving “advocates” so eager to criticize from the cheap seats. They are heroes.

Writing that column, Mr. Bailey, may not be easy. It may not be popular with the budget writers in the General Assembly. But make no mistake, it is the truth. History and decades of budgets prove it.

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