Opinion

More guards needed

Human error apparently played a role in the escape of two dangerous criminals from a maximum-security prison in Columbia in August. But a shortage of trained prison guards also was a factor -- and one that could lead to bigger problems unless more guards are hired.

Four civilian employees -- not trained correctional officers -- were overseeing more than 100 prisoners when the escape of a convicted murderer and a burglar occurred at the Broad River Correctional Institution. The lone guard assigned to a woodworking program at the prison instead was at a training class, according to a report by the State Law Enforcement Division.

State Department of Corrections officials stated that at current funding and staffing levels, prisons often are unable to staff posts during an absence. The shortage of guards also meant that guard posts around the perimeter of the prison were -- and still are -- unmanned, including one less than 15 yards from where the inmates made their escape.

The burglar was recaptured almost immediately, but the murderer remained at large for a day. The escape prompted a widespread manhunt involving several law enforcement agencies.

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

While mistakes were made, however, the greater problem is inadequate prison staffing. South Carolina ranked third worst among 39 states for the number of inmates per security staff, according to 2006 American Correctional Association statistics. The state has an average of only one guard for every 9.6 prisoners, while the national average is one guard for every 6.7 inmates.

Officials with the Department of Corrections asked state lawmakers for $9.6 million this year to hire 228 new corrections officers. Lawmakers did not approve the funding.

Fortunately, the escaped murderer was captured in the Broad River less than a mile from prison. But he had been on the run for 24 hours and could have wreaked havoc in trying to stay ahead of trackers.

This should serve as a warning to state lawmakers that a failure to provide the money necessary to hire an adequate number of prison guards could have serious consequences. In fact, as this incident demonstrates, that is a practical certainty.

South Carolina has the eighth-largest prison population in the nation with 24,217 people behind bars. And the system continues to send more people to prison as the state drags its feet in trying to find reasonable alternatives.

If we are going to continue to pack our prisons, we need enough trained guards to keep prisoners inside and under control.

IN SUMMARY

Recent prison escape indicates that shortage of guards could lead to tragedy.

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