Officers at the Lee Correctional Institution in Columbia eventually were able to quell a disturbance in which inmates overpowered guards on duty. But, with too few guards and shortages throughout the state's prison system, the next uprising might be more serious.
When several inmates refused to return to their cells at the maximum-security prison earlier this month, guards fired tear gas into the unit and sealed it off. It then took more than two hours to round up enough personnel to re-enter the area and subdue the inmates.
Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint said that with an adequate number of guards, order could have been restored in 15 to 20 minutes.
South Carolina spends less to keep its prisoners locked up than any other state. The state spends $1.43 a day to feed each of its 24,000 prisoners meals of macaroni, rice, turkey parts and organ meats -- supplemented by eggs from a prison farm operation. The national average for meals is around $2.70 per inmate. Mississippi was spending $1.43 to feed its inmates in 1999.
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The shortages affect nearly every aspect of prison operations in the state, even down to the locks. Locks that are supposed to be replaced every 15 years often have not been changed in 30 years.
Prison officials estimate the system is about 1,500 guards short of being fully staffed at the state's 28 facilities. The system also faces a $50 million maintenance backlog.
Meanwhile, the rising cost of food, fuel and medical care has taken a heavy toll on the budget. In all, the corrections department needs an extra $4.3 million to meet its costs this fiscal year, which ends June 30. And the outlook for next year is just as grim.
"There's nothing more that can be cut," Ozmint said. "It would take a huge layoff and closing of institutions for us to come up with money for next year's budget."
The neglect of the prison system is hard to understand, especially when so many lawmakers seem eager to put more criminals behind bars. The corrections department should be a priority, no matter what the economic climate.
Instead, however, it has been the poor stepchild in South Carolina, perennially underfunded. Since 2001, it has run a total of $57.5 million in the red, including $23.7 million in the 2004 fiscal year.
Shortchanging the Corrections Department is an invitation to trouble. South Carolinians shouldn't be surprised at the next big prison escape or hostage taking that occurs because of security lapses or lack of guards.
The prison system is an integral part law enforcement in the state. While no one is advocating country clubs for inmates, prisons must have the money to house prisoners humanely and hold them securely so they can't endanger other inmates, prison employees or civilians.
South Carolina already has the cheapest prison system in the nation. Without proper funding, it soon could also have the worst.