Originally created 05/03/04

Ozmint says assaults down at state prisons



GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Despite staff turnover rates that are "disastrous," tight budgets and an influx of new inmates, Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint says assaults are down in every category.

The Greenville News cited prison records that showed 633 assaults reported in state prisons during the current fiscal year, which is a decrease from the 1,014 reported from a year earlier.

Ozmint wrote to lawmakers detailing what budget cuts would mean to the state's 29 prisons.

"In summary, the population growth and low levels of funding have resulted in security ratios and turnover rates that are too high," he said, according to a copy obtained by the newspaper. "While no level of staffing or spending can prevent bad incidents in prison, those high ratios have direct negative impacts on safety and security for inmates and staff."

Ozmint says the numbers show his staff has managed to keep the system safer than expected. But he called officer turnover rates "disastrous" and said the lack of resources is hurting safety.

Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, is chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee. While surprised that assaults are down, Fair said the information tells him lawmakers should increase funding.

"The General Assembly thus far has not shown any desire to fund DOC. In fact, we have continued to cut them," he said. "We're going to have to bite the bullet."

Besides funds, Fair says legislators also should approve alternative sentencing proposals and give prison officials the right to remove good-time credits if a civil appeal filed by inmate was found "nonmeritorious."

Sen. Ralph Anderson, D-Greenville, is a member of Fair's committee. Anderson said he has objected to the bill because it would take away inmates' rights.

Fair asked for the information after two recent prison incidents: an attempted escape at Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville and the shooting of two inmates at Allendale Correctional Institution.

Ozmint's letter said this year's assault rates are the lowest in three years despite have 3,000 more inmates and 1,500 fewer staffers than in 1998.

"Thousands of dedicated staff are working harder than ever, as demonstrated by our assault and escape statistics," he said. "Our correctional officers and special teams are stretched thin by the demands of training and searching for weapons and contraband across the state. We have not replaced vehicles or equipment in four years, and many of our security staff are without working radios and body alarms."

Ozmint says his agency has a 65 percent turnover rate among correctional officers in a two-year period. That comes from a pay scale that is "dramatically" lower than other Southeastern states and even worse than six county detention centers in South Carolina, Ozmint said.

"I know of no other agency in South Carolina, law enforcement or other, with a more debilitating turnover problem," he wrote.

Ozmint said escapes are down, except at the minimum security facilities, where he said they've increased from 19 to 29.

"I do not expect that this trend will abate until we can fully staff our security ranks at those work centers and rehire job developers and other staff who have been lost due to budget shortfalls," he said.

Anderson said the Legislature has to also fund prison education programs along with security needs.

"I think we're going to have to invest in the beginning," he said, "and then we will reap the benefits at the end."