Deadly prison violence rises as budgets are slashed

Eight years ago, lawmakers in South Carolina embarked on a bold plan to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

A 2010 criminal justice reform package, aimed at cutting the number of people sent to South Carolina prisons for low-level offenses, led to a 14% drop in inmates by 2016.

in which allowed the state to close three maximum-security prisons in addition to also slash millions of dollars in annual prison spending through its budget.

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While South Carolina’s prison system right now ranks among the country’s cheapest for taxpayers, the idea’s also become one of the deadliest for inmates.

right now, the state’s prison system is actually under scrutiny after seven inmates were stabbed in addition to also slashed to death April 15 from the nation’s deadliest prison riot in a quarter-century.

While policymakers in many states have been lauded for similar efforts to reduce the prison population in addition to also spending, South Carolina’s experience may serve as a cautionary tale of the problems in which can come with rapid spending cuts.

South Carolina’s cost cutting went beyond just imprisoning fewer people. State officials also reduced mental health in addition to also additional programs aimed at rehabilitation in addition to also eliminated amenities in addition to also activities in which can keep prisoners busy. In some prisons, the idea also has meant more mixing of violent in addition to also non-violent inmates in addition to also fewer guards.

The same kinds of cuts have been happening across the nation through brand-new Jersey to Nevada. After decades of constant growth, the nation’s prison population peaked in 2009 before decreasing 7% between 2009 in addition to also 2016.

The riot at Lee Correctional Institution, a 1,785-bed prison in rural South Carolina, is actually part of an uptick in violence in prisons nationwide in which has killed in addition to also injured inmates in addition to also guards alike in addition to also cost taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements.

Across the country, states slashed prison spending by more than $0 million between 2010 in addition to also 2015. Meanwhile, violence appears to be on the rise, according to a USA TODAY review of public records, lawsuits, academic studies in addition to also news reports.

Slayings reported inside prisons almost doubled over a decade, through about four homicides per 100,000 to about seven killings per 100,000 inmates in 2014, according to the most recent data published by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

While the federal government doesn’t maintain data on prison riots, state records in addition to also news media accounts show there were at least nine prison riots nationwide in 2017 — matching levels last seen from the 1980s.

While efforts to reduce South Carolina’s prison population stemmed through Great motives, the push to defund prisons is actually likely contributing to recent violence, said Hannah Riley of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“If not done truly carefully, then This specific ends up being the result of the idea, which is actually truly tragic,” she said.

While state officials attributed the seven-hour riot at Lee Correctional to gangs, some blamed the outbreak of violence on living conditions.

“I believe in which conditions not just at Lee yet all across our state are deplorable, are third-world, in addition to also don’t reflect the kinds of standards in which we have an obligation to uphold in This specific state,” South Carolina state Rep. James Smith said.

All seven inmates killed from the riot bled to death after being stabbed, slashed in addition to also beaten, according to Lee County Coroner Larry Logan. Cellphone images show the bloodied bodies of the dead stacked from the prison yard.

Problems in South Carolina’s prisons began coming to light long before the riot.

Inmates complained in lawsuits in which South Carolina’s prisons are home to “uncontrolled violence,” where there are far too few guards, cells are left unlocked in addition to also gangs “run free in addition to also commit whatever crimes they want within the institution without fear of punishment,” according to some of the 0-plus lawsuits filed against the state Department of Corrections since 2015.

in addition to also just This specific week, federal prosecutors indicted 14 former prison workers for bribery in addition to also bringing drugs, cellphones in addition to also contraband into South Carolina prisons.

At the Lee Correctional facility alone, This specific month’s riot was preceded by the deaths of 22-year-old Christian Ray in a stabbing in July in addition to also 51-year-old Lee Rainey in a fight in November.

Just in 2017, the riots killed one corrections officer in addition to also left at least 12 injured, in addition to also saddled taxpayers with millions of dollars in legal fees in addition to also settlements.

In Delaware last February, one corrections sergeant was slain during a riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. State investigators ultimately blamed the rioting on the prison being “critically understaffed.” The state paid $7.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of the corrections officer.

In Oklahoma in July, two corrections officers were taken hostage during a mele involving about 400 prisoners at Great Plains Correctional Facility.

“There is actually no simple fix,” said Bert Useem, a professor at Purdue University who has studied prison riots. “Crucial is actually strong, effective administration. This specific means more than military discipline. the idea also requires provision of programming, cell space in which’s adequate in addition to also amenities to a reasonable degree.”

In South Carolina, last year’s violence included an incident in which two prisoners at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia said they strangled four fellow prisoners to death. They lived in a block where their cells were left unlocked because they were considered trustworthy. One told a reporter they killed because they wanted to be executed, saying they could no longer bear the conditions of prison life.

Prison crowding gets a lot of attention yet is actually generally less a factor than staffing, said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal justice reform advocacy group.

“Most of the research on the issue shows in which the idea’s the management of the prison in which’s truly critical in determining just the scale of problems in which develop,” he said.

Shaundra Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said the understaffing problems from the state’s prisons are exacerbated by poor mental health care in addition to also failure to separate non-violent offenders through violent inmates.

“I’m not saying in which they need to have a a few-star hotel, yet they’re still human beings at the end of the day,” Scott said. “You’re in there to be in prison to pay your debt to society, in addition to also you shouldn’t have to worry if you’re going to die while you’re in there because there’s not adequate protection.”

Experts say maintaining proper staffing levels is actually key to preventing prison riots in addition to also disturbances — a persistent problem in South Carolina, where one in a few of the state’s prison guard jobs are vacant.

“The guard-to-prisoner ratio has gotten to a truly unsustainable point where there aren’t enough guards,” Riley said. “The jobs in which the guards do are incredibly hard. They’re paid very poorly. There’s just not enough of them.”

from the federal prison system, the ratio is actually about one corrections officer for every 10 inmates. The South Carolina riot occurred with 44 guards on staff for 1,583 inmates — one guard for every 35 or so prisoners.

“Forty-four at Lee is actually Great,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said at a news conference following the riot.

Not all experts agree with Stirling’s assessment.

“in which certainly sounds like a smaller number of staff for in which number of inmates,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, who added the security level in addition to also structure of a facility must also be taken into account

“You need to have adequate numbers of well-trained, high-quality staff who are properly deployed,” Deitch added. “in addition to also in which’s just a given in any prison system if you want to operate the idea safely.”

According to the Department of Corrections, the starting salary for a correctional officer at maximum security prisons is actually $34,596. The agency’s chief told reporters in January about one-fourth of those jobs were unfilled.

South Carolina’s spends $20,053 per prisoner. in which’s the ninth-lowest from the U.S. in 2015, according to data compiled by the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice. The state cut overall prison spending 2.4% over those a few years.

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