Editorial: SC still has work to do to prevent a repeat of 2018 Lee prison riot

The conversation about prisons has changed in South Carolina in recent months, as we’ve begun to focus on the deplorable problems in our county jails and, more recently, a judge’s secret decision to release a murderer from prison years before the law allowed. We’ve even been able to celebrate some good news, about the impressive job the S.C. Corrections Department has been doing to reduce recidivism.

But still lingering in the background has been the worst U.S. prison riot in a quarter century — the 2018 uprising at Lee Correctional Institution that killed seven inmates and injured dozens more.

It exposed significant problems at that prison — an insufficient number of correctional officers to enforce even basic security, gangs allowed to operate with virtual impunity, a mass transfer of dangerous rival gang members into Lee just months before the violence, and ineffective door locks — many of which existed at other prisons as well.

And the solutions have been slow in coming. Although legislators found money to start replacing the malfunctioning locks the next year, it took three years to inject a significant amount of money into the system for repairs. Meantime, lawmakers have finally raised starting salaries for prison guards significantly — from about $35,000 to $52,000. As a result, the agency was able to attract 300 more correctional officers over the past year.

And finally, earlier this month, prosecutors obtained the first of what we hope will be several guilty pleas from the prisoners who participated in the riot: Four of the 29 men who were indicted in late 2020 pleaded guilty to various charges in state court and had their prison sentences lengthened.

We’re disappointed it’s taken this long, although it’s not as problematic as it would be in most situations, since those responsible for the riot have been in prison the whole time. Barney Giese, the former Midlands solicitor who is prosecuting the cases, said he expects more guilty pleas soon, and we look forward to that. That the victims were criminals does not make them any less victims. And the fact that the perpetrators are already in prison doesn’t make holding them accountable any less important, since most if not all of them eventually will be released from prison — although a little later thanks to their actions in 2018.

“This is important so folks know that they’re going to be held accountable for their actions, regardless of where they are in the system,” Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told WCSC-TV. “It’s important for the victims in this case, the people that are left behind to see that justice has been served for their loved ones. Even though they were incarcerated, they do deserve justice.”

But even if everyone involved is eventually convicted, that finishes only part of the job.

Even more important is ensuring this doesn’t happen again. The Legislature’s investments are important, but they’re not enough. The funding hasn’t covered all the equipment upgrades Mr. Stirling identified in 2019. The salary increases are unlikely to be enough to attract and maintain an adequate number of corrections officers. Even if those pay levels do the job today, they will need to be increased every year to keep up with inflation — something our Legislature isn’t great at doing.

As long as we lock people up — and unfortunately we will always need to lock some people up — we will have to spend more money than anyone wants in order to keep all of us safe from their escape, to keep our employees safe from attacks and to keep the prisoners safe from other prisoners.

The only way to reduce these costs is to reduce the number of people we imprison, and there are only two ways to do that: Reduce the crime that necessitates imprisonment, or reduce the use of imprisonment to punish crime.

The first is difficult, but something we have to recommit to every day, beginning by ensuring that all children in this state receive the education they need to get a decent job and break the cycle of poverty that entices too many people into criminal behavior.

The second is fairly easy, if not always politically popular. We’ve been reducing the prison population for more than a decade since it topped out at nearly 25,000 people in 2009, but we’re still paying for food, housing and medical care for more than 15,000 — a quarter of them for drug crimes. Certainly, some people need to be locked up for drug crimes, but many don’t. And we still need to do much more to empower and encourage judges to impose alternative sentences — from crippling fines for white-collar criminals to aggressive requirements for drug treatment, job training and intensive surveillance outside of prison — on nonviolent offenders.

The sooner we refocus on that, the sooner we can start dropping those inmate counts significantly — and with them the money we have to spend on our prisons.

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