So far, South Carolina’s correctional system has managed to duck the high infection rates plaguing prisons in states like Ohio and Mississippi. According to Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, 35 of the department's nearly 5,000 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus. Three of those work at Kirkland Correctional Institution, where a 69-year-old inmate with pre-existing health conditions, has tested positive. As of this report, the inmate is in the hospital and is the sole positive among the inmate population in the state.
SCDC also has had one death – a guard at Lee Correctional. His family has requested that he not be further identified, but Stirling confirmed that the guard did die from COVID-19.
"We’re not sure if he got it at Lee," Stirling said, "but we’ll find out later, once the tracing is done."
SCDC is working with state medical institutions and the Department of Health and Environmental Control to perform contact tracing – a kind of reverse engineering process that follows the steps back towards where a person with COVID-19 most likely came into contact with it. And the protocols to get inside are so strict that even the director himself has to go through a screening process every time he shows up at work.
“I fill out a form – have I been around anybody who’s tested positive, have I traveled to any hotspots, do I feel sick? Things of that nature,” Stirling said. “My temperature is taken and I’m let in if I don’t have a temperature. We do that at every institution.”
Inside the prisons, largely self-isolated inmates and staff in protective gear clean their facilities every two hours. Moreover, Stirling said, SCDC has taken extra precautions with protective equipment for inmates. They each get two masks – one to wear while the other is being washed – and access to soap and hand sanitizer to complement the usual social distancing and safe practices guidelines.
Stirling said the inmates are handling the situation well. Other than the masks and cleaning, inmates’ days have not changed all that much. Thy still dine together, get time outside, and sleep in their cells.
What has changed, however, is contact with families and visitors. With access cut off, family members tell SCDC that they worry about what’s happening to those inside, said department spokeswoman Chrysti Shain.
Stirling said the department is “doing literally everything we can to try and keep their loved ones that are incarcerated safe and keep our employees safe.” That includes vigorous pre-entry screenings and the aforementioned heavier cleaning schedule.
Still, some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that the best way to keep safe higher-risk inmates with less time left on their sentences would be to release them. The ACLU recently sent a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster’s office asking for early release for some inmates, and followed up with a formal lawsuit.
But neither the SCDC nor the governor of South Carolina has the authority to release anyone early or pardon a sentence.
“The governor only has authority to commute a death sentence to life,” Stirring said. “That’s all the law allows, so we have no authority to release anybody early.”
Stirling said one thing that is helping is that police agencies and courts are sending fewer inmates to jail right now. What was a flow of 40 or 50 new prisoners brought in per day has slowed to a handful. And all new inmates are being processed at only two facilities before they’re allowed into the general population – men at Kirkland Correctional and women at Camille Correctional, both in Columbia.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Report for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan