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ABC15 News Special Report - Is South Carolina's prison system crumbling?

ABC15's Tonya Brown takes a deep look to answer the question "Is South Carolina's prison system crumbling"?

Many people across South Carolina are still baffled as to how seven inmates could be killed and 22 others badly hurt at Lee County Correctional Institution in one of the worst prison riots in our state's history.

Some question if our state's prison system is crumbling, arguing that the prisons are out of control and it seems like the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) can't do anything to fix it.

SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said cell phones being smuggled into the prisons are causing the violence, as gangs use the phones to commit crimes in and out of prisons.

“This is about cell phones. And you heard us talk about these over and over again. These folks are fighting over real money, and real territory while they were incarcerated. The folks that are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways from behind bars. Not only dangerous inside the institution, but is also dangerous outside the institution," he said.

He added he's tried for years to get the FCC to block cell phones signals in prisons, but it has yet to be done. Stirling said until those signals are blocked, prison violence will only get worse.

SCDC told us last April that they've seized 7,200 cell phones from prisons across the state.

“I want to know from the FCC and from the regulator why they’re allowing these cell phones to continue to work from behind prison walls. They continue to put profit over public safety, which should disturb everybody,” said Stirling.

The FCC has said if they block cell phone signals in prison, it could affect signals for people living near prisons.

In the meantime, SCDC has taken on a number of measures to stop the phones from being smuggled into the prison.

“One of the things we’re doing at Lee is a thing called Managed Access. We’ve done a pilot there, where we can block certain calls, but other calls can go through. And we’re seeing some successes there, but they’re quite expensive,” explained Stirling.

Governor Henry McMaster issued an Executive Order last week to combat the flow of illegal contraband into prisons.

Still, some inmates' relatives across the state said cell phones aren't the only problems.

They said something is wrong when inmates can lure other inmates into a cell one by one as they did last April at Kirkland Correctional Institution where four inmates were strangled to death in one night.

Inmates' relatives also point out other violent events in state prisons, including a prison riot New Year's Eve at Turbeville Correctional Institution that left eight people hurt and a 32-year-old Charleston County man dead.

Charles Dupree served six years at Turbeville Correctional Institution in Clarendon County. He was just released in late March.

Dupree said there are real problems inside our state's prison that need to be fixed. He said inmates are treated inhumanely and there aren't enough programs anymore to help rehabilitate inmates.

"It's gone get worse back there. Inmates hanging themselves. Inmates stabbing one another up behind nothing. The guards, some of them don't do their jobs. They don't care," said Dupree.

Dupree fears that violence will only get worse if the system isn't reformed. He added the law that inmates serve a mandatory 85 percent of their sentence for violent crimes needs to change. Dupree said inmates feel hopeless and have nothing to look forward to, including one day getting out of prison.

Dupree said many families are supporting South Carolina House Bill H-5155, which encompasses a number of issues, including sentencing reform.

It lowers the amount of time inmates serve behind bars for nonviolent crimes and it drops the mandatory time served from 85 percent to 65 percent. It also says inmates must behave in order to get their sentences reduced.

Mary Spates’ fiance has been in prison for 18 years and they support H-5155.

Spates agrees the system needs to be reformed to include more family based and educational programs for the inmates. She added not all inmates are bad people. She said many of them want to be rehabilitated to get back into society.

“When you don’t have anything to do when you’re just sitting back there, it’s going to create violence. It’s just a handful. And then the media wants to point out the handful that’s bringing the violence. But they’re not showing the good side. I think Brian Stirling and the governor needs to go into these prison system and speak with the inmates. See if from their side. Because we’re on the outside,” said Spates.

Spates said H-5155, if passed, would give inmates hope.

"To know that they’re getting closer to home. In knowing that in this bill, they have to behave in order to be able to be eligible for that bill," said Spates.

Some correctional officers agree with inmates and their relatives that the state's prison system needs to be reformed.

One woman said she quit working as a corrections officer at a state prison last month after three years on the job. She said she's just afraid to do the job anymore.

She didn't want her name revealed but told us:

People don't understand that it's one officer to 200 plus inmates. And we had just one call and then that left an officer doing two dorms. I have seen two officers be in charge of four dorms. I have seen a man dead in his cell and nothing was done. His roommate didn't even go to lock up, which by the way is the rules. When it comes to cell phones, I have seen the inmates walk around with cell phones, even cell phone watches. They tell us to just write the inmate up, but because they are understaffed, they don't get these phones. I just had an inmate write me on Facebook and when I called to report, I got told just to block the inmate. It's crazy. There is no safety inside that prison. They are so short that we only have two people for back up. And out of them two people, one is supposed to stay up front. All this stuff needs to come out.

The former correctional officers said more officers are needed and that will help stop a lot of the violence.

Right now, SCDC has some 600 vacancies. Stirling said they're actively working to fill those positions through a nationwide hiring campaign.

He added they have all sorts of incentives to attract new officers and to retain existing correctional officers. Stirling said they've also increased the starting salaries for correctional officers and they'll get a raise within six months on the job. He added they're doing all they possibly can to hire more officers, but it’s going to take time.

“We hadn’t a raise in this department for over a decade. So when officers were making over, they were making around $27,000 a year, on average. And about three or four months after I took over, Walmart announced a raise for its employees. A Walmart employee was making more than an SCDC employee. That should tell you where the priorities were. And we’ve changed that. But, I think our officers deserved to get paid a lot more than a Walmart employee. And nothing wrong with working at Walmart, but our folks are part of law enforcement. And they serve a very vital need of law enforcement. And they have a very tough job,” said Stirling.

“We are literally doing everything we can. And do I think that’s going to make a difference, yes. I think what will make the biggest difference is blocking these signals, absolutely. I hate to over simplify it, but that’s as simple as it gets,” said Stirling.

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