GREENVILLE - State Sen. Mike Fair said a weekly limit on the number of inmates the state prison system will take in is against the law, and he offered a solution that includes never-used prison cells built three years ago.
Local officials across the state have been frustrated with the Correction Department's quotas, which allow only a limited number of inmates from county jails to be transferred to the state prison system each week.
Aiken County is allowed to transfer just seven men and one woman every week, but he said the number of people waiting to be transferred fluctuates depending on court proceedings.
"A week and a half ago, we had 30 prisoners waiting to go," said Capt. Charles Barranco, who oversees the Aiken County Detention Center.
The average cost to house an inmate in South Carolina, he explained, is between $55 and $60 per day.
Most inmates waiting for trials or sentenced to less than a year behind bars are in county jails. Those sentenced to at least a year are usually in state prisons.
State prison director Jon Ozmint has said the quotas are necessary because his agency doesn't get enough money.
Mr. Fair's solution would give state prisons an additional $4.6 million, which would include opening an additional 256 prison beds in a facility that was built three years ago but hasn't been used because Corrections didn't have the money to staff them.
The state would have to pick up prisoners within 10 days under Mr. Fair's proposal, which doesn't include any money to reimburse counties for housing inmates who should be in state prisons.
"We can't go down that trail," said Mr. Fair, R-Greenville, the chairman of the Senate's Corrections and Penology Committee.
Ozmint spokesman Josh Gelinas said the agency supports Mr. Fair's proposal, but disagrees with him calling its quotas illegal. The Corrections Department asked for more money to keep from having to implement the quotas, but lawmakers refused.
"We've never gotten what we asked for," Mr. Gelinas said.
The state prison population peaked four years ago, but an increase in arrest rates and convictions have caused a backlog evaluating new prisoners. Mr. Fair said most of the money he wants to give Corrections would pay for staffing at an expanded center to review new inmates along with the unused 256-bed facility and one other location.