How golf course netting is helping stop contraband at South Carolina prisons

RIDGEVILLE — The sun beat down outside Lieber Correctional Institution on Wednesday afternoon, glinting off razor-sharp Concertina wire lining parallel, 12-foot tall fences at the high-security prison.

For years, fencing like this helped keep prisoners from escaping but did little to stop the flow of contraband like cellphones, tobacco products, drugs and weapons inside. As of Monday, 50-foot tall nets encircle Lieber and officials say they believe the equipment will make life inside prison walls safer.

S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and Lieber Correctional Warden Randall Williams stared up at the netting — the same kind used at many golf courses to stop errant balls from damaging nearby property or hitting traffic — on Wednesday, remarking that not even Tom Brady could throw something over it.

The nets are the latest step of a roughly $7 million project to encircle all of South Carolina’s medium and high-security prisons and Stirling says nets previously installed at Ridgeland and Evans correctional institutions have been showing promise.

“There’s just no way to throw over,” he said. “At Ridgeland and Evans, we were getting about five or six (attempts) per week. Now, throw-overs have stopped.”

While issues at South Carolina’s prisons have generated dramatic headlines in recent months, such as the implication of 14 corrections employees in plots to smuggle contraband behind bars and a riot at Lee Correctional Institutionearlier this year that left seven inmates dead, the director says he and his partners haven’t been reactive.

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“All this has been in the works for years,” Stirling said. “We found the funding for the netting two-and-a-half or three years ago. We’re going to continue to do this.”

Getting funding, design approval and starting construction on projects like the netting can take years, he said.

Stirling pointed to a nearly-completed observation tower, which cost about $200,000 to build.

Requests to fund that project went out in 2014, the director said.

And infrastructure improvements like the netting are coming alongside pay increases for correctional officers and recruitment pushes aimed at retaining staff, which Stirling said has been a significant problem in recent years.

While the gap is closing, the director said retention efforts still have a long way to go.

Still, Williams says the netting and the observation tower are signs of progress.

“It makes me realize that we’re on the right track,” the warden said. “I’m very pleased that we have a director that’s mindful of all this. This is what we call good, safe practices.”

Other recent initiatives include a program in which SCDC employees use drones equipped with high-resolution and infrared cameras to monitor for contraband.

For lawmakers like state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, stopping the flow of contraband into state prisons is an essential imperative, calling the illicit trade, “the biggest concern in prisons today.”

Senn, who serves in the state Senate’s Corrections and Penology Committee, praised Stirling for quickly acting to turn around a “terribly underfunded agency” when he took over in 2013 and doing so with limited money available.

“Trying to correct problems in prisons is a job akin to building new roadways or getting much higher scores in education,” she said. “Big strides do not happen in any agency overnight and never without money. Yet, who wants to take a dollar from education or infrastructure and give it to inmates? Not me.”

For state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who also serves on the committee, investment in rehabilitation is just as important as investing in new technologies or equipment like netting.

“Those are variables that are part of the solution,” Kimpson said. “If we are giving inmates opportunities, that will lead to greater hope that they will be able to participate in this growing economy. Without those opportunities, they turn their attention to … contraband.”