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The ACLU of South Carolina released a 96-page report Tuesday detailing shortfalls in the Palmetto State’s criminal justice system. And while many of the findings show ongoing issues within the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) — mass incarceration continues disproportionately affecting communities of color — other key aspects are worth noting.

“SCDC’s lack of staffing is chronic, and unsustainable”

Mass incarceration has led to a dramatic outnumbering of correction officers in S.C. prisons, the report reads, and SCDC director Bryan Stirling reportedly agrees that a chronic lack of staffing affected the department’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Lee Correctional Prison Riot in 2018.

Staffing shortages affect every aspect of prison life for both officers and inmates, including security, reentry programs and the delivery of medical, mental-health and addiction-recovery services. These, in turn, affect the stability and security of incarcerated people and staff, according to the report.

“When prisons lack the staff to ensure even basic security, visitation policies are often curtailed,” the report reads. “This can escalate tensions within prison systems between guards and the incarcerated population.”

“Expanding prison programs is one of the most effective investments in reducing prison populations”

There is a strong relationship between quality prison programming and reductions in disciplinary action within prisons, according to the report. S.C.’s incarceration rates increased dramatically in the 1990s, and at the same time, SCDC eliminated most of its reentry programming.

This left people in overcrowded facilities with little hope of being prepared for reentry due to a lack of improvement in education levels or vocational skills.

Program management now recognizes the need to bolster this area of S.C. prisons, the report says, especially soft-skill and vocational programs, but the lack of resources of workforce available make it a difficult goal to achieve.

Stirling (left) pictured with Gov. Henry McMaster in 2017 | Photo by S.C. Governor’s Office

“Prisons are among the most isolated, misunderstood places in America”

The COVID-19 pandemic offered opportunities for entities to be up-front about operations within their respective departments, and potentially face backlash, but also presented chances to keep quiet as the pandemic spiraled. According to the report, it was prisoners coming forward with firsthand accounts that led to change within prisons during the pandemic. This is partly due to a handful of 1970s Supreme Court decisions that cut off prisoners from contact with the outside, including with reporters.

“It is rare for wardens to allow journalists to observe prison conditions firsthand,” the report reads. “Many preclude in-person interviews as well.326 In addition, incarcerated men and women risk retaliation by prison staff by advocating for their rights through interviews with the press.”

These factors combined continue to hide the realities of prison life, especially during times of turmoil, the report contends. And the lack of direct, independent oversight shrouds prison environments in secrecy and further isolates those within, according to formerly incarcerated advocate and journalist Paul Wright, quoted in the report.

“We must reconfigure our societal priorities”

While it is rare for political leaders to find common ground on many issues in today’s political climate, Republicans and Democrats alike have both supported legislation that has led to the current conditions of S.C. prisons, and it will take lawmakers from both sides of the aisle working to fix it to make a difference, the report says.

Some suggestions have already been made. The bipartisan consensus has been that measures need to be enacted to release people from prison who no longer pose threats to public safety, according to the report. And criminal justice experts are also reimagining how to define public safety to better facilitate reentry.

The full report, consisting of nine specific recommendations for the department, can be read at ACLUSC.org.

All nine recommendations have been addressed by the department of corrections, according to a department spokesperson, who said that prison programming has been vastly expanded and that South Carolina has the lowest recidivism rate in the nation at 21.9%.

Another recommendation specifies the creation of a fully funded ombudsman position to monitor and address issues with medical and a mental health services. SCDC has an ombudsman housed in the director’s office, according to a spokesperson, who told the City Paper the issue of an independent one was brought up and discussed during the S.C. House Oversight Committee review but was not recommended by the committee.