A needed step toward improving S.C.’s beleaguered prisons

September 6, 2019
Richard Eckstrom

By Richard Eckstrom, S.C. Comptroller


First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: All is not well in South Carolina’s prison system.

Its troubles have been pretty well-documented over the past few years, from inmates acquiring contraband – such as cell phones, drugs and weapons – to a deadly riot last year at the Bishopville, S.C. prison.

These aren’t easy problems to cure. Few would fault our hard-working correctional officers, whose facilities have long been understaffed and who — like so many of our police and other first-responders — operate in a high-stress, volatile environment where a routine day on the job can turn deadly in an instant. The fault more likely rests with the failure of lawmakers to respond fast enough to the rigorous demands placed on modern-day prisons; the proliferation of cell phones and increasingly elaborate contraband-smuggling schemes create emerging challenges for our prison system, which houses over 20,000 inmates.

To be sure, South Carolina’s beleaguered corrections system has come a long way over the past three years or so, thanks largely to a series of reforms that include hiring more guards, raising guard salaries, and implementing innovative methods of preventing contraband from entering prisons. Still, other reforms are needed.

One practical step toward improving our prisons – and creating safer conditions for correctional officers – would be to reduce the state’s prison population by housing less-dangerous offenders at local city and county detention facilities. I’ll elaborate.

Last month, a team of performance auditors charged by lawmakers with reviewing the operations of our prison system recommended such a change.  Under their proposal, offenders sentenced to less than a year of confinement – who would generally present less of a threat to society than would hard-core offenders with stiffer sentences – would serve their time at their local jails.  Currently, state law requires offenders sentenced to three months or more to be sent to state prisons – making South Carolina the only state with such a mandate. In 45 other states, offenders sentenced to a year or less remain housed at local detention centers.

The benefits of such a change seem clear. It would reduce pressure on our under-staffed state prisons, which would help alleviate safety issues. It also would improve efficiency by cutting prisoner transport costs and by eliminating the current need to re-book and re-process prisoners initially booked and processed at local jails.

And it would improve the chances of rehabilitating those convicted of less serious crimes. It’s a terrible reality that minor offenders imprisoned alongside more hardened, less repentant convicts risk acquiring the hardened criminals’ habits and attitudes – increasing the odds that they’ll reoffend once released.

Of course, any major reform is likely to face resistance. In this case, there’s understandable pushback from local officials who, among other things, complain that they’ll incur additional costs to house these short-term prisoners. Fair enough, but that’s a hurdle that can be overcome. It alone shouldn’t impede a measure which, to my mind, has far more advantages than drawbacks. And just eliminating avoidable and duplicated functions would reduce the “big picture” costs.

It simply makes sense.

Our corrections challenges don’t get the attention they should, in part because we don’t get to view the conditions behind prison walls. But they impact each of us in some way; they impact our wallets, and our safety and security. Which means we all have a stake in making our prison system more secure, less costly, and more rehabilitative for those who will one day be back among us.

Lawmakers should give this proposal the open debate and serious deliberation it deserves.

Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state’s Comptroller.