Exclusive! Prison Legal News Interviews South Carolina DOC Director Bryan Stirling
Prison Legal News Interviews South Carolina DOC Director Bryan Stirling
On May 25, 2018, Prison Legal News conducted a phone interview with South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. The interview took place less than two months after a deadly riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville that left seven prisoners dead and 22 injured. At least seven lawsuits have been filed against the Department of Corrections since that incident, all centering around claims of negligence and gross negligence by prison staff.
During the 30-minute interview, PLN investigative reporter Steve Horn discussed what actions Director Stirling and his department have taken since the fatal April 15 riot, including his involvement in an interstate task force that seeks solutions to contraband cell phones. The task force met on April 30, 2018 in Washington, D.C. and was scheduled to meet again in mid-June in Arlington, Virginia. Stirling spoke about what is happening with the task force, what he believes is the solution to contraband cell phones, the issue of corrupt prison guards, the investigations that have been launched concerning the Lee riot and much more.
Below is a transcription of the interview, which has been edited for clarity. Parts of this interview were used in an article published in the July 2018 issue of Prison Legal News titled, “After Deadly Lee Prison Riot, Lawsuits Filed, Push to Block Cell Phone Signal Renewed.”
Steve Horn (SH): What’s the timeline for the investigation into the deadly riot which ensued at Lee Correctional Institution in terms of how long you expect it to last, and when it’s actually done, whenever that is, will the results of the investigation be made public?
Bryan Stirling (BS): When I work with the Attorney General’s Office it’s the same thing. When’s the investigation going to be done? The investigation is going to be done when it’s done. I mean, you never know where a lead’s going to take you or what have you. Nobody would ever put a timeline on an investigation. You just don’t know. You don’t know when you’ve exhausted all of your investigative resources. Depending on what the investigation entails, everything will be published once it’s done.
SH: Right after the deadly incident, you and the governor and others held a press conference in which you discussed what you thought some of the driving forces were behind how it culminated. That is, this was a fight over contraband. Is your view of the situation still along the lines of what you said that day or has your view changed as the investigation has evolved?
BS: Nothing that I’m aware of has changed my view of what took place.
SH: So it’s sort of the same as your initial explanation as to how it unfolded?
SH: In terms of policies and regulations, will the investigation have to have run its course before the South Carolina Department of Corrections goes ahead and either issues new regulations or does new policy things?
BS: We have ASCA (Association of State Correctional Administrators), which is in the process of reviewing and giving basic recommendations to our policy procedures. We’ve got a team headed up by Brad Livingston, former Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and we’ve asked them – as anyone should in this kind of situation – for an outside independent review of our policies and procedures that is ongoing. Based on those recommendations, you know, if they say anything is something we should do, then we’re going to look into doing that.
SH: So are you saying of ASCA, that they’re actually doing their own review of this or have they been hired to do an outside investigation? If I’m misunderstanding that, can you explain their role again?
BS: So, ASCA comes in and they have a bunch of directors and associate directors [of state-level departments of corrections]. They’ll come in and review our policies and procedures, top to bottom, and come back with recommendations for Lee. But if they do it for Lee, they’ll do it for some others too, because if it’s happening at Lee then it’s probably stuff that’s happening at other prisons too. After that, we’ll look at making different policies and procedures or making adjustments as the recommendations come in.
SH: Is that all separate from the investigation that it sounds like – I believe the Department of Justice would be the agency – is undertaking?
BS: So, there’s the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and our own investigators and they’ll be doing a criminal investigation. This is a policy procedure review. So, they’re different.
SH: So, maybe what comes out of the criminal investigation will potentially be new policies down the road, but it also could lead to criminal charges? With that said, there’s one specifically focused on policy and that’s the one being conducted by ASCA?
BS: Right. We’re constantly looking at policies and procedures and making the ones we think need to be made. And that’s not due just to this incident, but that’s what all corrections departments do across the country.
SH: In terms of looking at the issue of cell phones, for example, which have been cited as one of the driving forces behind what happened and just as a general problematic area that not just your state, but many states are currently dealing with. For this particular incident, is there any real driving evidence on your end that shows that cell phones may have sparked what became such a deadly affair at the end of the day?
BS: I’m happy to talk about it in general. Cell phones are contributing to the increase that I believe we’re seeing in contraband, the increase we’re seeing in violence inside our institutions. What I know from being a director for awhile now is that cell phones are a problem not only in South Carolina, but across the country and I do think they contribute to....
You know, folks are incarcerated now. They’re physically incarcerated, but with cell phones they’re no longer virtually incarcerated. They get their hands on a cell phone and continue their criminal activity behind bars.
SH: But in terms of this incident or incidents like it that lead to fights or riots or something violent....
BS: What I said before, and this is not specific to Lee, but these folks are fighting over real money and real turf. You know, before cell phones people may have been fighting over a little bit of contraband, but now we’re seeing people who are incarcerated being convicted for federal drug trafficking. So, they’re fighting over real money, real territory and real contraband. It’s across the country. If they have access to cell phones....
You know, a lot of folks who come to prison – your readers should know – they choose to do the right thing. They don’t get involved and they want to be rehabilitated and choose to take advantage of programs, services, things of that nature which could really help them. They get their GED, high school diploma or trade certificates. And this really makes a difference in their lives and their families’ lives, so that when they get out they can come home and support them.
SH: Looking at that issue, but also the related issue of how sometimes incarcerated people get their hands on the actual cell phones. In South Carolina and beyond, one of the issues has been that sometimes Department of Corrections officials are actually selling them those phones. For example, in South Carolina there was recently federal indictments brought against those sorts of individuals.
In terms of the balance, there’s obviously the premise that this could be solved through technological solutions such as managed access systems, cell phone signal-blocking technology, etc. But it seems like recently, too, there’s been a crackdown to stop people who are actually Department of Corrections officials from coming in and selling them. Would you say that it’s a 50-50 focus for the South Carolina Department of Corrections to tackle both of those areas, or would you say there are other driving forces too, beyond those?
BS: It’s 100 percent in all areas. I’m not talking about specific cases, but we’ve basically doubled the number of investigators that we have. We’re seeing, you know, arrests during visitation of officers and other staff [due to the trafficking of contraband]. I want to make this clear and I think other directors of departments of corrections would agree: I want people who are incarcerated to be communicating with their family members. Eighty-five percent get out under five years and 92 percent get out in under 10 years. These folks are coming back into our community and they need to have that connection with their family so that they can come out and do the right thing when they leave. Hopefully their family is encouraging them to get rehabilitation and deal with mental health issues, see mental health counselors and hopefully put jobs skills to use.
I just want them to know that we’re listening and that they’re talking for legitimate purposes, not to further criminal enterprises from behind [the] walls. I think that’s an important fact and every director from around the country will tell you that.
SH: I think what you’re getting at, as the head of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, is that the whole crackdown on contraband cell phones, or stopping them from coming into the state [prisons], that has more to do with issues we talked to before. Rather than, you’re not stopping people from seeing families and loved ones?
BS: Correct. I want to encourage that. That’s why we changed our disciplinary policy awhile back pertaining to sanctions on visitation and telephone use and things of that nature, so that’s a process we’ve gone through recently too.
SH: To get back to my initial interest in this, which is the FCC Task Force, can you talk about that for a second and the potential policy solutions or common ideas which may arise from that Task Force? Is there anything you can go into in terms of what’s on the table like managed access systems, cell-blocking technology or anything like that?
BS: Yeah. So basically everything’s on the table: managed access, cell-blocking technology. What came out of the meeting is that we agreed to do some testbeds and next month we’re going to go to the Washington, D.C.-area and look at managed access, look at blocking.
SH: From my understanding, it sounds like based on my conversation with an industry spokesperson is that the Task Force is leaning more toward managed access systems and away from cell-blocking technology. The Task Force, I was told, is also leaning against a new FCC rule coming out to deal with the issues at hand.
The FCC is there as an observer, I was told, but it’s probably going to be something that comes from the states rather than some new federal rule that comes out. Does that sound like a fair characterization, so far, of what’s come out of the Task Force in terms of policy and regulatory proposals?
BS: No. I’m still 100 percent for jamming. I think it’s the most effective means. But we are willing to look at different technologies and test them out. I know jamming works, though, and I am 100 percent for jamming.
SH: So do different states have different perspectives on that particular debate and the issues underlying it?
BS: I think all of the states are for jamming. Did you talk to another state?
SH: I didn’t talk to another state about this particular policy debate, but only the wireless industry, so maybe that’s why this perspective was conveyed to me. That’s the current wireless industry preference, based on what I was told, but the industry in that case was not speaking for the states.
BS: Sure. They’ve always preferred that, but we’ll all get in a room and we’ll see the technology and see what’s working and what’s not working.
SH: And I mean, at your Department of Corrections facilities, do you currently have managed access systems?
BS: We are currently finishing up installing one at Lee Correctional.
SH: Oh, okay. Was that going into place before the incident or was that after?
BS: That was before. We tested out a managed access system in one of the dorms at Lee Correctional and I sent one of my people about two years ago to go around the country and examine managed access to see if it worked or not. I was told it didn’t work by talking to Mississippi and California. They were not happy with their system. So they came back and designed a system which was pretty intricate and we’ll see if it works. We’re going to test it out. There’s some concern that it may or may not, but it’s a lot of money, so I want to see if it works and we’ll go and secure more money to go elsewhere.
SH: Looking at the issue of cell-blocking for a second, and not from your perspective, but that of the industry. Why is the wireless industry so against it? What they told me is that they believe it is too much of a blunt force tool which could block even people who live in surrounding areas or maybe block the cell service of Department of Corrections officials who are using it for legal means. What do you gather about the situation?
BS: So, number one, if we were to block we would use communication like the officers currently do, which is our radios. Number two, from what I understand, it’s basically the same technology as managed access. You know, I think while ago there was a chance – they’re worrying about the bleed-over, basically. They’re worried, but I think technology has advanced so much that I’ve been told they can do blocks which get can within three feet of the cell phone’s signal. If you’re familiar with prisons, a lot of the higher-level prisons, they have fences and then they have another fence and they may have recreations yards and everything.
But the one at Lee, the way we’ve designed it, it covers the entire prison and not just a single dorm, so we’re hoping that will be a difference from other states. Honestly, we’re going to wait and see and test it ourselves. But as a director and someone in charge of spending tax dollars, I’m just not going to throw a bunch of money into something that doesn’t work. And it hasn’t worked anywhere except for in what I think was a county jail and that was all one building, so we’ll see.
SH: And you’re talking about the test you’re doing is a managed access system? It’s not cell blocking?
BS: Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s a test. It’s more of a pilot because it’s been fully installed. I don’t know if that’s a distinction without a difference, but for a test you just do it one time and for a pilot you fully install it at a single facility and use it as a case study.
SH: So my last question is, given this is an article for Prison Legal News and many of our subscribers reside – some of them are in South Carolina Department of Corrections facilities or definitely elsewhere across the country – from your perspective as the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, do you have any big takeaways in terms of what you’re doing as a director or what the department is doing to ensure that people within the Department of Corrections who are incarcerated will be safe in the future? And how are you going about ensuring incidents like this don’t happen again?
BS: Sure. So, we’re putting up netting around our facilities at 50-feet in the air to halt throw-overs and we’ve got that in place at two prisons right now, so that’s 30 feet above our fence. We’re unveiling our drone program and our surveillance monitoring station, the latter of which will be monitored 24/7 by staff at a location in Colombia, South Carolina. But the biggest thing is, I want people to take advantage of our programs and things of that nature. I understand with staff levels, sometimes programs – we’re trying to do everything we can to hire more staff and get more programs. I believe, as I said, 85 percent of these folks are getting out within five years and want to take advantage of these programs, so that when they leave they won’t come back. We have the fourth-lowest recidivism rate in the country and I think that’s what we’ve been focusing on, which is the programming.
SH: All right. I appreciate your time and help on this. Thanks for talking to us at Prison Legal News.
BS: Thanks. I appreciate it. Have a good weekend.