- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s prisons chief is doing the best he can to make do with tight budgets and staffing shortfalls. Sometimes that means putting some of the state’s institutions on 23-hour-a-day lockdown to keep both inmates and officers safe.

Corrections director Bryan Stirling said in a recent interview that he’s gotten creative in finding ways to hire new officers, like talking up benefits and aggressively recruiting at schools and job centers.

However, until he can get his staffing numbers up to a comfortable level, he said he’s forced to sequester many inmates at times - a process that causes additional headaches of its own.

“We’re just taking a multi-faceted approach,” Stirling said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. “We have to lock institutions down, which is not good for anybody.”

The state’s prisons can no doubt be difficult places to work. Officers are at times subject to violent insurrections from unhappy, idle inmates; they work long hours and make less than officers in the state’s law enforcement agencies. Within the first year, between 40 and 50 percent of new hires leave.

With officers stretched thin, Stirling has instituted intermittent lockdowns in some of the state’s prisons. With inmates in their cells all but one hour of each day, fewer officers are needed on-duty at any given time. Cameras can monitor many places. Places like exercise yards and dining halls are left empty.

There are concerns, and internal stresses, that come with the lockdowns. Inmates get frustrated by the confinement. There’s no visitation allowed, keeping families apart. Volunteers are restricted, too, which means inmate programming grounds to a halt. All meals are served in the inmates’ cells, which requires more supplies and effort.

“The goal is to have these folks out and busy as much as we can with the resources that we have,” Stirling said. “I don’t blame them for being frustrated by it. We’re frustrated by it.”

With recent authorization to pay more overtime to officers, lockdowns have decreased dramatically in recent months, down from 21 in August at one prison alone to three in October at that same facility. But civil liberties advocates warn that using the tactic at all, outside of during fights or riots, could do more harm than good.

“Most human beings do not respond well to that sort of situation,” said Susan Dunn, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina. “You think that it’s going to make things better, but when you let them out, you may have escalated the situation.”

Stirling said he is seeking more money from state legislators to fund more officers, but in the meantime, public safety outweighs all other considerations.

To keep the lockdowns at a minimum, Stirling has launched an aggressive hiring effort. For starters, he’s trying to be more upfront with recruits to make sure they know what they’re getting into, taking them through prisons to get an up-close look at where they’ll be working.

A raise for his officers was approved last year, and Stirling said he wants another one. Stirling has also shortened the hiring process and changed policies that prevented the department from posting job openings on social media sites.

The social media campaigns are helping, but it’s recruiters like Regina Mays and Vicki Brevard who really get candidates in the door. Both veteran Corrections officers with more than four decades experience between them, Mays and Brevard are fixtures at colleges, job fairs and other recruiting events.

“Someone gave me a chance, you know?” Brevard said. “I do everything I can to help them out.”

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Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/


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