Training took guard off-site before prisoners fled, SLED finds

COLUMBIA -- Civilian employees -- not prison guards -- were overseeing more than 100 prisoners at a maximum-security Columbia prison where a convicted murderer and another inmate began their escape in August, a State Law Enforcement Division investigation found.

The lone correctional officer assigned to a woodworking program at the Broad River Correctional Institution instead was at a training class, according to the SLED report obtained by The State newspaper under the state Freedom of Information Act.

That left four civilian employees responsible for supervising and performing three head counts on about 120 prisoners.

"Had the officer been in the prison industry factory, that escape wouldn't have occurred, more than likely," said Department of Corrections spokesman Josh Gelinas. "We didn't have anybody to replace him with that day."

Forrest Kelly Samples, 37, who is serving life for the 1996 murder of a Laurens motel owner, and convicted burglar Andrew Lagrand Storey, 28, used a makeshift ladder and a second commercial-grade ladder to scale two razor-topped fences.

Storey was captured almost immediately, but Samples was on the run for 24 hours, prompting a widespread manhunt involving several law enforcement agencies. He eventually was fished out of the Broad River less than a mile from the prison.

SLED's probe also found:

• Prison officials were aware 75 minutes before the escape that Samples was an escape risk, but failed to track him down.

• For more than 2 1/2 hours, Samples and Storey were on their own after hanging around the wood shop after the third of three head counts.

• During that time, they broke into tool shops, ransacked a prison office, made a ladder from wood flooring and duct tape, and cut a commercial ladder off a wall, waiting to make their move.

• Samples told SLED he didn't have a plan for when he got out. "He was just going," a SLED agent wrote in the report. "He said he was going to rob and steal his way for money to get wherever he wanted to go."

In response to the escape, the department's inspector general is conducting an internal investigation, and some staff, whom the department would not identify, have been disciplined.

A senior security official was demoted in rank and salary, a private employee was suspended for two weeks, and a corrections employee resigned before disciplinary action could be taken, the department said.

While Corrections officials fault the civilian employees -- who get some security training, but not as much as prison guards get -- for failing to adequately supervise the warehouse where the program was held, they largely blame a shortage of correctional officers.

"At our current funding and staffing levels, we are often unable to staff posts during an absence," the department said in a statement in response to several questions from The State.

Those staffing levels, officials say, meant guard posts around the perimeter of the prison were -- and still are -- unmanned, including one less than 15 yards from where the inmates climbed the fence.

"If the perimeter at Broad River had been fortified, it would have greatly diminished the possibility of this escape," Gelinas said.

Inadequate prison staffing is a nationwide problem, said James Gondles, executive director of the prison-accrediting American Correctional Association. Ideally, he said, a correctional officer would have been on duty in the workshop, and perimeter posts would have been staffed.

"If they don't have bodies, they don't have bodies," Gondles said.

South Carolina ranked third-worst among 39 states for the number of inmates per security staff, according to 2006 American Correctional Association statistics, the most current available. S.C. prisons had one guard for every 9.6 inmates, while the average was one for every 6.7 inmates.

Corrections officials this year asked lawmakers for $9.6 million to hire 228 new correctional officers as part of its proposed $361 million 2008-09 budget. Lawmakers did not approve the funding.

"The men and women who are out there in the dormitories and in the yards -- we just don't have enough," said Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee. "We've known that a long time."

Any escape is a "big deal," Fair said, "particularly at the level of those inmates -- their potential of causing all sorts of mayhem."

Fair is hopeful an ongoing legislative audit of the Corrections Department will identify ways to better manage the prisons.

warning signs?

Samples drew attention to himself in the weeks and hours before the escape, the SLED investigation found.

He had become "somewhat distant" for weeks before the escape, Dewey Michelin, a manufacturer's consultant with Prison Industries, told SLED investigators.

After being asked a number of times what was wrong, Samples said he was being blackmailed, Michelin said, "but would not elaborate. .æ.æ. At many times, he would stand at the fence and just stare towards the housing area."

Samples also was "involved in cell phones in the institution," George Chapman, plant manager of Prison Industries told SLED. Ten contraband phones were recovered in Prison Industries in the week leading up to the escape, Chapman told SLED.

On Aug. 14, the day of the escape, an inmate told Prison Industries supervisor Charles Eargle that three inmates, including Samples and Jeffrey Boys -- who also is doing life for murder -- were trafficking marijuana, according to the SLED report.

Samples told SLED that Boys helped him escape by locking him inside the Prison Industries workshop after the third head count.

The report found that 75 minutes before the escape, a Corrections sergeant, acting on information from another inmate, told a Corrections lieutenant Samples was "acting strange and was a possible escape risk."

the prison's probe

Prison officials said their own internal investigation has found that all prison industries employees "who were interviewed told investigators that prior to the escape, neither Storey nor Samples gave any indication of an increased risk of escape."

Corrections officials would not comment on allegations Samples was trafficking marijuana, until they review the SLED report and compare it with its own internal report.

Samples and Storey were charged with escape, a criminal charge that could mean an additional one to five years in prison.

Boys has not been punished for his role, Corrections officials said, but "internal sanctions will be imposed if the charge can be proven."