State lawmakers must reform parole system, retain prison staff

Concertina wire surrounds Lieber Correctional Institute in Dorchester County, near Ridgeville. (Grace Beahm/File)

Over the past six years, we have made significant progress in improving our criminal justice system. The Sentencing Reform Act of 2010, coupled with national population trends, has reduced our inmate population, allowing Gov. Nikki Haley and Corrections Director Bryan Stirling to shutter several small prisons.

From improving mental health care, to reducing the number of inmates in long-term segregation, to youthful offender reform, to expanding successful faith and character housing and re-entry programming, SCDC employees are safely navigating changing national trends in corrections. And, they are doing so while also improving safety and security; inmate on inmate and inmate on staff assaults are down and our recidivism rates are among the lowest in the nation.

This year, lawmakers should address two dangers that threaten to undo the remarkable progress made in the past few years.

The first threat is our 19th century parole system and the disincentive, hopelessness and public safety risks created by parole rates that are among the lowest in the nation. After years of side-by-side comparisons to no-parole schemes across the country, we now know that effective, objective parole systems make prisons and societies safer. Corrections, Parole Pardon and Probation Services and our judiciary have embraced the directives and intent of sentencing reform. But, our parole system has not moved forward.

Even as our prison system has tripled in size, our parole process has remained virtually unchanged. Our current board members are good, dedicated lay people who work hard at a thankless job.

But they are underpaid, under resourced, under-trained, and they are working in an outdated system governed by antiquated statutes and rules. Asking lay people to hear 70 cases in an eight-hour day is unconscionable. It is time for a parole system governed by objective standards, adequately resourced, fully informed by all agencies, insulated from politics, comprised of criminal justice professionals, and accountable for costs vs. benefits. It is time for the General Assembly to reform our parole system.

The more immediate danger is the invariable and dangerous impact of an improving economy on our correctional workforce. It is an immutable, economic reality that as economies improve, correctional hiring drops, turnover increases and vacancy rates rise. Across the country, security vacancies are rising.

Recognizing this danger, last year the North Carolina Legislature approved a two-year, $50 million plan boosting pay for security staff in its prisons. The new starting salary for N.C. correctional officers will be $32,200, before step increases to reduce turnover. The starting salary for correctional officers at the Richland County jail is $30,086. Other states and counties are taking action, as well.

In South Carolina the starting salary for correctional officers is $25,561 before step increases. In a bad economy with high unemployment, this was barely sufficient. In today’s economy, it is simply not enough. In 2010, our state’s unemployment rate was 10.6 percent and the vacancy rate for correctional officers was 10.9 percent. Today, the state’s unemployment rate is 5.5 percent and vacancy rates for correctional officers in SCDC are at a frightening 27 percent and climbing.

Here’s what that means. A fully staffed SCDC maximum security prison may be staffed at 45 security positions on a 12- hour night shift, supervising 1,600 inmates, and supervising “out count” inmates on medical transports and in hospitals. Assuming normal out counts, sick leave, and annual leave, a 25 percent vacancy rate can easily reduce that number to 20 or fewer officers trying to man necessary security posts and supervise 1,600 inmates. Since our authorized inmate-to-officer ratios are already among the worst in the nation, this growing shortfall is a recipe for disaster. Legislators need not be security experts to understand the obvious risks created by the current vacancy levels: inmates can count.

Our correctional officers work in close quarters with, and protect us from, the most difficult and dangerous people in our state. They work in the most spartan conditions in state government. We arm them with training, a radio and a canister of gas and we put them in harm’s way. Then, we pay them near poverty wages. It is no wonder that their ranks are shrinking.

Even well-run and well-staffed prisons can have bad outcomes, but understaffed prisons beg for bad outcomes. Lawmakers should fund a pay raise for correctional officers, this year.

They deserve better, and so do we.

In recent years, our legislature has made great strides. Reforming our parole system and reducing dangerously high vacancy rates can protect those gains.

Jon Ozmint, an attorney, served as director of S.C. Department of Corrections from 2003- 2011. He was a member of the state’s Sentencing Reform Committee and currently serves on the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee.