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Have Corrections cuts put public safety at risk?
By BOB PEELER   Guest Columnist

The State, Columbia, SC          Published Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Minutes after Gov. Jim Hodges led the state Budget and Control Board in cutting state budgets by 4 percent, the governor's spokesperson at the Department of Corrections warned the cuts could jeopardize public safety.

"We are bleeding," said Cheryl Bates-Lee of the department's $11.8 million cut. "They don't make a Band-Aid big enough."

Agency protestations of budget cuts are not new. They go back to the days when the president of S.C. Educational Television warned that Big Bird might have to fly away from the airwaves if ETV suffered a mid-year budget cut.

As we all know, Big Bird is still alive and well because ETV managed the budget cuts.

But the warning from the Department of Corrections is different and more ominous.

The department houses 21,000 criminals in 31 facilities. The only firewall between our citizens and these 21,000 criminals is the courageous men and women in the department who have some of the toughest jobs in South Carolina.

They are routinely cursed, spit upon and physically assaulted. Their lives are in jeopardy virtually every minute of duty.

To add insult to injury, corrections officers have had to deal with the stigma of having their profession tarnished by the rotten apples among them who chose to have sex with inmates.

Heads rolled at the department only after the governor discovered that inmates were having sex in his taxpayer-funded residence. Better late than never.

For the huge majority of dedicated and honest corrections officers, however, low pay, dangerous conditions and public ridicule make for a difficult life.

The Department of Corrections' warning about the agency "bleeding" and not having Band-Aids big enough raises more questions than it answers.

Does it mean that state employees who protect our citizens by working in the prisons are in danger?

Before this latest round of budget cuts, an HIV-infected inmate beat and raped a prison librarian in a restroom at the Broad River Correctional Institution. According to reports, the inmate had been disciplined 27 times since 1993 for various infractions, including sexual misconduct.

How was such an inmate allowed to be left alone to rape a prison employee? What has the department done to make sure it won't happen again?

Of course the biggest question of all is the safety of the public.

Was the spokesperson saying the Department of Corrections can no longer guarantee against riots and prison breaks because its resources have been so depleted?

These are serious questions raised not by partisan politicians seeking an issue against the governor, but by the spokesperson in one of the governor's Cabinet agencies.

If the spokesperson was being overly dramatic, then that is an internal problem for the governor.

If, on the other hand, the governor can no longer be sure that corrections employees and the public can be protected from violent inmates, then he has a duty to address it.

At his behest, the Budget and Control Board approved deficit spending for state agencies involved in security as a result of the terrorist attacks. This was a wise move to protect our people.

But the prisons are the most basic element of homeland security. If the budget cuts jeopardize public safety, then the governor should move to allow deficit spending in the Department of Corrections as well.