SC Department of Corrections experiences big spike in hiring in last year

Just a year ago, South Carolina prisons had more unfilled corrections officer jobs than actual officers on the job.
Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 11:31 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 24, 2023 at 11:32 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Just a year ago, South Carolina prisons had more unfilled corrections officer jobs than actual officers on the job.

But now, the Department of Corrections says it has seen a major turnaround in hiring — and that the state is safer because of it.

“We’re up 256 people,” SCDC Deputy Director of Operations Joel Anderson said, speaking specifically to the number of corrections officer jobs filled in the last year. “Right now in our academy today, I’ve got 130 security staff in the training academy. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this.”

From this time last year, the Department of Corrections has lowered its officer vacancy rate from 60% to 40%.

That followed the legislature allocating millions of dollars in last year’s budget to raise pay for state law enforcement officers, including those in corrections, and to allow SCDC to offer sign-on, retention, and referral bonuses worth thousands of dollars.

SCDC leaders detailed the hiring turnaround during a meeting of the governor’s cabinet Monday afternoon in Columbia, as other state agencies deal with staff shortages and struggles hiring. The Department of Administration reports about 11,000 full-time state employee positions are currently vacant.

The Department of Corrections significantly revamped its approach to recruitment, including decentralized recruiting out of Columbia to also be focused in the Upstate and Lowcountry.

“We were asking everyone to come to us, and that’s just not feasible today, when you can do everything through your phone, through a computer. Technology is so helpful,” SCDC Human Relations Director Jessica Lovelace said.

They focused advertising on the areas where potential officers were likely to interact with them and hear about open jobs, like at gas pumps, along the outfield wall at Minor League Baseball games, and on sports talk radio.

SCDC spent about $831,000 on advertising last year and plans to increase that to nearly $2.5 million this year, the most money it has put toward advertising in at least the last decade.

“If there is a place for us to put a sign, we are going to put it there,” Lovelace said.

The department also started taking a much more detailed approach to retaining workers, so if their shift or role wasn’t a good fit, they could find a new position within Corrections instead of leaving for a different employer entirely.

Director Bryan Stirling said getting and keeping these jobs filled is vital, not just for his department but public safety as a whole.

“Now that we have more bodies, that’s making it safer because you have that second set of eyes. You have someone watching your back — not everywhere. I mean, we still have some institutions that have high vacancies, and we’re working on those,” Stirling said.