- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Inmates in South Carolina prisons now have the option of either visiting a dying relative in the hospital or attending the person’s funeral.

A law signed last week by Gov. Henry McMaster requires the Department of Corrections to arrange for the inmate’s transportation and security, as long as the funeral or hospital is in South Carolina and the trip won’t endanger the public.

Its sponsor, Sen. Karl Allen, said inmates’ inability to attend a loved one’s funeral or death bed contributes to low morale that can result in dangerous prison upheavals.

The Legislature’s overwhelming approval came one month after four inmates were strangled at one prison and three officers were injured at another in inmate attacks.

Four previous versions of the bill failed to even get a vote in the House. Allen, a Greenville Democrat, first proposed the legislation in 2006.

That’s the year after Corrections stopped the practice, partly due to increased cost. But some prisoners’ families have been able to arrange transportation through local law enforcement.

That’s not fair to inmates who don’t have connections, Allen said.

“My heart cried out to those not able to go. If you allow one to go, you have to allow all of them. That was the inhumane part,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s not appropriate that someone plays God.”

According to Corrections, 689 prisoners on average were transported to funerals annually from 2000 through 2004, with a 2002 peak of 819 prisoners. Since the September 2005 policy change, the number of prisoners transported annually by local officers has ranged from 10 to 96.

The law allows the state agency to arrange transportation through local law enforcement. Regardless, the cost is the inmate’s responsibility - either through a prison account or someone paying for the inmate - and must be paid in advance.

The law says the option must be given when a parent, sibling, spouse, child, grandparent or grandchild “becomes seriously ill to the point of imminent death, or dies.” Corrections officials must verify the relationship and the relative’s illness or death.

“It’s the law, and we will follow it to the best of our ability with public safety being our main concern,” said Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.

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