Problems with prisons

The S.C. Senate is warranted in turning a review of the state prison system over to auditors and state police for investigation. But we hope lawmakers also will review the role of the Legislature in providing the Corrections Department with what it needs to maintain a safe and secure prison system.

The review of the system by a legislative committee headed by Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, has put the committee at odds with prisons director Jon Ozmint and Gov. Mark Sanford. Ozmint complained bitterly, accusing the panel of "cheap shots," after a 12-page preliminary report was leaked over the weekend. The governor's office has called the review a "witch hunt."

Last week, the committee agreed to turn its findings over to the Legislative Audit Council and the State Law Enforcement Division. Unfortunately, that means the public is unlikely to hear open testimony about allegations made during the Senate review. But it should reduce the political tension that review has sparked, and even Ozmint said he was satisfied with the new process.

The report made public last weekend indicates that allegations are serious enough to warrant further investigation. For example, the committee reported firsthand accounts of five high-profile escapes resulting from security lapses; a hostage taking in which an employee was raped when officials failed to act quickly enough; use of stun guns on restrained inmates; prisoners suffering broken bones from abuse; and misuse of resources by prison officials.

If the allegations can be substantiated, personnel and policy changes are in order. But responsibility would not necessarily rest solely with the Ozmint's office.

The state's prison system has long been overcrowded and understaffed. Yet lawmakers' response has been inadequate funding and legislation designed to put more people behind bars.

The Corrections Department experienced budget cuts every year from 1999 through 2003. While the prison population has increased by 3,000 since 1999, the number of employees in the department has shrunk from 7,000 to 5,400.

And working in the prison system can be a thankless job, especially when that system lacks the manpower, equipment and space needed to control a dangerous population. Under those conditions, hiring and retaining qualified personnel is even more difficult.

If lawmakers are serious about not only addressing the complaints received in the Senate review but also reforming the system, they need to consider more money for the department, alternatives to locking up prisoners and new efforts to recruit guards.

Senators did the right thing by putting the results of their investigation into the hands of auditors and SLED agents. But we hope the effort to improve the state's prison system doesn't stop there.