Article published December 15, 1985
Prisons Jammed, S.C. In Trouble
There was so much handwriting on the wall / That even the wall fell down.
-- Christopher Morley in Around the clock.
A very apt description of the emergency situation in South Carolina's prison system. For many years, the writing has been there, but the people still hollered, "Put 'em in jail." Prosecutors and judges yielded to the cry.
Several news stories during the past week highlight the burgeoning crisis - extending from the local level, including Spartanburg, to the Central Corrections Institution.
Spartanburg County's jail, with a legal limit of 82, reached an inmate population of 115, not including 22 housed in the city jail. A plan to reduce the load by offering defendants the chance to enter guilty pleas was proposed to Judge E.C. Burnett III, who approved the idea. Substantial numbers of inmates were taken from the jail to the courtroom.
The net result was to reduce the population by 39, but 10 prisoners still were sleeping on the floor Friday morning. As part of the process, at least 18 prisoners were sent to the S.C. Department of Corrections.
"It's helping to a large degree to reduce the large overcrowding problem we've had," Warden Larry Powers said, but he expected to be "filled back up again tonight (Friday)."
Judge Burnett said he will hear guilty pleas from more inmates this week.
In Greenville recently, Judge Victor Pyle held court in the prison itself to lighten the burden. However, Spartanburg's facilities were too cramped. "So we're moving the inmates to the judge."
Meanwhile, Charleston authorities are recommending state legislation to allow the issuance of tickets, rather than immediate imprisonment, for a long list of non-traffic violations. The 37 offenses include simple assault, simple assault and battery, shoplifting amounting to less than $50, and simple possession of marijuana and hashish.
Also, the board of the S.C. Department of Corrections - faced with a prisoner population of 1,311 over legal capacity - authorized early release of 201 in an emergency move. Obviously, that won't do much removing, but it barely complies with a maximum allowed in settlement of a federal lawsuit.
Of interest in Spartanburg County is that, by agreement with lawyers for inmates, about 290 additional prisoners will be sent to state facilities at Cross Anchor and Dutchman. Second and third beds were put in many cells.
Another development was opposition by the Board of Corrections to a proposal that the state contract with private firms to operate prisons. The Board said it doubts that the system can be operated as efficiently or at less cost that the state. It added that no private firm ever has operated a long-term adult facility.
Obviously, the problem will be more perplexing as counties lessen their own burdens by sending prisoners to the state system.
Meanwhile, the handwriting is becoming engraved in stone - and those walls are teetering all the more.