South Carolina's prisons "clearly need more officers," but keeping jobs filled is a struggle, the state's Corrections director told senators Thursday after the deaths of four inmates at one prison and three officers injured at another.
Director Bryan Stirling said a single officer sometimes must monitor more than 200 inmates, depending on the prison and shift. State prisons are nowhere close to the national standard of four officers for every 30 inmates, he said.
Stirling said his agency is hiring more officers and making changes to comply with last year's agreement to improve treatment of mentally ill inmates. But he cautions that decades-long problems in the historically underfunded agency won't be "fixed overnight." That settlement resolved a 2005 lawsuit of allegations dating to the 1990s.
"We're doing what we can with what we have," Stirling told the Senate Corrections Committee.
Across all prisons, he said, the vacancy rate for officers is nearly 31 percent.
The 12.5 percent vacancy rate at the Columbia prison where the four were killed is comparatively low. At the time of the deaths, two officers were assigned to the dorm housing 139 inmates, according to the Department of Corrections.
Hiring for the low-pay job is difficult, though an advertising campaign that includes TV ads and billboards has helped, Stirling said.
South Carolina's salaries for prison guards have ranked among the nation's lowest. Increases approved by the Legislature last year — following the settlement — have helped, but officers could still make more working in jails in the state's larger counties, he said.
"Last year, when Wal-Mart increased their salaries, Wal-Mart employees were getting paid more than correctional officers," Stirling said.
Additional pay increases for prison guards could be approved for the fiscal year starting July 1. Legislators are still finalizing their budget plan.
Currently, officers in maximum-security prisons start out at $33,600 and get a $1,100 boost if they're still there in six months. But keeping officers is another problem, he said.