COLUMBIA - A state senator plans to travel across South Carolina with a special committee to hear from prisoners and employees about problems in prison, following a deadly riot last month that killed seven inmates and injured 22 others.
Democratic state Sen. Karl Allen of Greenville said communication is a barrier and he wants to develop a system where correction staff and inmates can report problems anonymously.
Prison employees, inmates and their families fear retribution if they speak up about problems, said Allen, who called a meeting of a Senate subcommittee on the final day of the General Assembly's regular session. Allen asked Corrections Director Bryan Stirling to come up with a plan to enable anonymous complaints. Stirling said he would work with his executive staff to come up with a mechanism to fulfill Allen's request.
The hearings can't start soon enough, said National Action Network Vice President Nelson Rivers, who had a relative in a South Carolina prison.
"In South Carolina if we're judged by how we treat the people in prison, we would go to hell," Rivers said.
In mid-April at Lee Correctional Institution, inmates armed with homemade knives fought each other for about seven hours over territory and money, leaving seven of them dead in the worst U.S. prison riot in a quarter-century.
Stirling told senators that employee morale problems are linked to inadequate staffing.
There are 612 vacancies in the prison agency, with only enough money to fill 285 positions.
"I think if you're one person working a 12-hour shift and you're asked to do a lot, I think that's very stressful, and I see it," Stirling said.
Stirling told lawmakers Thursday that prisons are providing guards with new boots, offering leadership training and holding employee appreciation days along with getting some money for bonuses and raises to boost morale.
But some senators think incidents like the recent riots and the two prisoners who managed to kill four fellow inmates in their cell last year at Kirkland Correctional Institution mean more drastic action must be taken.
"New boots and uniforms in my opinion won't cure incompetence," said Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston. "Since you've been director there have been a number of colossal failures with respect to incidents under your control."
Inmates remain on lockdown as the investigation into the deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution continues and some prisoners have been moved from cells where the lock system has failed, said Stirling, who warned that fixing the lock system will be expensive.
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