State prison chief Jon Ozmint has a legitimate gripe with state lawmakers regarding lack of funding for the Department of Corrections. But we think he made a mistake in tainting an investigation of his department by the Legislative Audit Council.
Ozmint has had to contend with allegations of lax security, inmate abuse and a politicized, hostile work environment. He asserts that problems with the operation of the state's prison system stem almost entirely from lack of adequate funding.
Nonetheless, the Audit Council had proposed a survey of prison system employees regarding workplace conditions. The survey was prompted, in part, by allegations that included covering up the sexual assault of an employee; using inmate labor for hunting and fishing trips; and numerous legal awards against the department, including a $600,000 award for an inmate-beating case.
Ozmint, however, contended that any survey would be imbalanced and slanted against prison administrators. He aired those feelings in an e-mail sent to Corrections employees in mid-June.
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"It is easy and tempting to blame your immediate superiors, your senior leadership or this agency for low pay, low staffing, crowded prisons and insufficient equipment," Ozmint wrote in a June 17 e-mail to prison system employees, telling them about the upcoming Audit Council survey. "However, all of those problems are controlled by lawmakers."
Subsequently, the Audit Council scrapped the survey, saying Ozmint's comments had rendered any results invalid.
By almost any objective measure, South Carolina's corrections system is underfunded. The state spends about $10,000 less per inmate than neighboring North Carolina or Georgia.
South Carolina 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.
South Carolina prison officials estimate the system is about 1,500 guards short of being fully staffed at the state's 28 facilities. The system faces a $50 million maintenance backlog.
With state revenue shortfalls and rising food and fuel costs, the situation can grow more dire.
Despite Ozmint's protestations, some problems within the system might stem from issues other than lack of funding. The allegations cited above indicate potential mismanagement by administrators and disciplinary problems among personnel.
An unfettered survey of employees might have helped uncover problems in the system unrelated to its money woes. It might have found areas where money is being wasted.
But Ozmint's clumsy interference in the process poisoned the well before a valid survey could be conducted. We are sympathetic to his cries for more money, but his e-mail to employees was ill-advised and unlikely to gain him much support from state lawmakers.
State prison chief Jon Ozmint made a mistake in contacting personnel about audit.
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