SC prison officers say they aren’t safe on the job

South Carolina officers say they aren't safe while working at the state's maximum security prisons.

(WSPA) – Current and former correctional officers at some of South Carolina’s maximum security prisons said the job is no longer safe.

Dwindling numbers of officers, combined with a more dangerous population of inmates have left some officers demanding help while Department of Corrections officials struggle to fill vacant jobs and provide support to the officers on the job.

At Perry Correctional, 96 men and women guard nearly 900 prisoners, including some of the state’s most dangerous inmates.

More than a dozen current and former officers contacted 7News to talk about current conditions inside the prison.  Leon Simmons spent 18 years working in state prisons, the last four at Perry, before retiring in March of this year.

“It’s not safe,” Simmons said.

Simmons said prison guards, who are sworn officers trained at the state’s criminal justice academy, have suffered from low pay and dwindling numbers for so long they struggle to find experienced officers for many of the prisons most dangerous areas.

According to state records, guards at Perry were assaulted by an inmate 35 times in 2015.  In some cases officers have been stabbed or badly beaten.  Statewide, inmate assaults on officers happened 421 times last year.  It’s happens, on average, 8 times a week, a 17% increase from the year before.

Sources inside Perry, including one current inmate, said the attacks aren’t always random.  That includes an incident that shut the prison down on April.  Instead, officers said they are targeted on inmate “hit lists”.

“They do exist.” Simmons said.

Simmons said during the April incident inmates were attempting to kill a specific prison employee.

“Very seriously hurt, possibly even get rid of that employee permanently,” Simmons said.

Corrections has always been a dangerous job but officers like Simmons said the critical staffing shortages have made the jobs worse, that an officer on an inmate hit list may not have someone watching his back.  The inmates, meanwhile, have gotten more violent.

“The state is no longer locking up as many people that we’re mad at. We’re locking up people that we’re afraid of,” said SC Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.

Stirling said state sentencing reform reduced the number of non-violent offenders locked up in the prison system.  In fact, the state has closed some minimum security institutions and the overall number of prison inmates has steadily fallen for a decade.

But the inmates who are locked up are, on average, more violent.  In 2002, 44% of the inmates locked up in South Carolina prisons had been convicted of a violent crime.  In 2013 it was 63%.

Stirling said officers have new training, new stab-resistant vests, and better communication tools to keep them safer on the job.  Still, the biggest problem may be a lack of veteran manpower.

“We have officers who, everyday, go in and face a difficult task a challenging task of trying to do more with less,” Stirling said.

Pay is the biggest problem.

At the Greenville County jail, new hires start at more than $31,000  a year.  The Lexington County detention center pays new hires more than $34,000.

Newly hired correctional officers in South Carolina prisons make less than $27,000.  That’s less than the average hourly wage paid to workers at Walmart.

The state has recently raised salaries slightly and Director Stirling said his office continued to push for pay increases for prison employees.

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