ACLU report details flaws in South Carolina prison system

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 9:37 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 24, 2021 at 7:15 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A new 96-page report by the ACLU of South Carolina is highlighting flaws in the state’s prison system.

The report titled “Reevaluating Crime and Punishment in South Carolina” looks at sentencing policies across the country throughout the 1970′s and 1980′s, and then focuses on where South Carolina is today with policies and prisons.

Shirene Hansotia, the Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for ACLU of SC, said there is a crisis in the prisons with ongoing issues of mass incarceration and lack of resources.

She said these issues are disproportionally affecting Black and Brown communities.

“In South Carolina, the black population is 26% but they represent 60 some percent of the people that are in prison,” Hansotia said. “We talk about disparities, but also the impacts of sending far more people to prison for far longer periods. It has not only busted state budgets, but it has wrecked millions of people’s lives throughout the country and in South Carolina, wrecked communities, neighborhoods, and families.”

The report details a chronic staffing problem in South Carolina’s prisons, one that Hansotia said needs to be addressed through reducing the number of incarcerated people and giving those in prison better access to services and programs they need.

“Right now, we have a crisis in our prisons where we’re sending a large number of mentally ill people to prison because there are virtually no other places for them to go,” Hansotia said. “This isn’t all on the shoulders of the state department of corrections, this is also on our legislators who need to take notice, because they refuse to address these issues. It is incumbent on them to look at what’s really going on and take the hard work to change our sentencing policies.”

There are nine recommendations listed in the report for SCDC and some for South Carolina as a whole.

They include vastly increasing all types of prison programming, creating case plans for each person upon entry into prison and identifying goals for completing programs, paying every incarcerated person for their work, and encouraging individuals to volunteer their time and resources in state prisons.

The other recommendations call on SCDC to:

  • Provide consistent access to visitation.
  • COVID-19 RECOMMENDATIONS: Safely reduce the prison population. Follow the example of at least 12 other states in prioritizing the inoculation of incarcerated people against COVID-19.
  • Streamline the grievance process and regularly review problems identified by incarcerated people prior to them ending up in the court system.
  • Require SCDC to open the “black box” of prison life to the public through expanded access to the media and advocates.
  • Create a fully funded ombudsman position to monitor and address problems in SCDC, primarily focusing on issues with the provision of medical and mental health services.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Chrysti Shain said the report contained outdated information, and the department has implemented almost all the recommendations listed in the document.

Shain said the department has increased prison programs and added that the state has the lowest recidivism rate in the nation with 21.9%.

She also said that some inmates earn minimum wage or more for work in prison industries, and there are efforts being provided to encourage volunteering although volunteer visits are suspended at this point because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The response to the other recommendations were:

  • In-person visitation is being phased back in after the COVID-19 suspension, starting in June. Electronic visitation is available for all inmates.
  • SCDC cannot reduce anyone’s sentence. Only the courts can do that. Having said that, our lower recidivism rate is keeping about 100 inmates from coming back to prison each year. That would be the equivalent of an entire large prison over the past decade if the programs were not working.
  • Done. We have revamped our grievance process from paper to electronic so complaints can be handled more quickly.
  • SCDC allows journalists and advocates to tour institutions by appointments. I have taken reporters from your station and other outlets into several institutions over the past two years. No visitors can enter institutions unannounced because of the security risk.
  • SCDC has an ombudsman housed in the director’s office. The issue of an independent one was brought up and discussed during the SC House Oversight Committee review. It was not recommended by the committee.

To read the full report, click here.

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