McCormick police chief: No room for turf wars when keeping prison secure

Towering over the razor wire-topped fences of McCormick Correctional Institution, netting stretches about another 60 feet into the air.

The netting is the kind designed to stop golf balls on a course or driving range, but in McCormick, it’s stopping contraband from being thrown over the fence, said McCormick Police Chief Bo Willis. The state Department of Corrections paid to have the netting put up after a string of contraband throw-overs that the police department had to investigate.

Calls for those kinds of investigations plummeted once the netting went up — after all, anyone who can throw over that netting deserves a spot on the Atlanta Falcons, Willis said. But keeping McCormick’s state prison safe takes the cooperation of three separate agencies since the area of the prison actually falls under multiple jurisdictions.

Everything from the fence and into the prison belongs to the state Department of Corrections, but the parking lot and road leading to the prison belong to the city. The land outside of the prison is separated with a wire fence supported by wooden stakes that splits the part of the property owned by the state and what section is within the county’s jurisdiction, Willis said.

“If something happens inside their fence and it’s dealing with civilians, we have to handle it,” Willis said. “If it’s dealing with inmates, then it’s SCDC, but if it’s off the roadway and something happens, it’s the sheriff’s office.”

It takes coordination to deal with any issues around the prison, and Willis said since the city and county are small agencies and the prison is shorthanded on staff, they don’t have room for any territorial disputes or jurisdictional infighting. They all respond when a threat is made known, and they figure out who should be handling the case once any suspicious people are in custody.

There’s regular communication between the agencies, Willis said, in order to keep everyone on the same page. Besides the netting, Willis said there are constant patrols around the prison’s fence. The most frequent issue law enforcement runs into near the prison now is people trespassing near a dumpster outside the fence and trying to hide items for inmates to later pick up when they come out to empty the dumpster.

Trespassing is the most common issue, and Willis said on March 24 police investigated reports of trespassers in an off-limits portion of the area outside the prison’s fence. According to a police report, officers were called out when a suspicious vehicle went around the perimeter and the associate warden was able to get the two people inside to stop the vehicle.

Officers searched the vehicle, finding two handguns and a bottle of liquor, the report said. Dominic Antonio Brown, 40, and Sam Rutledge Jr., 39, both of Yemassee, were arrested in connection with this case, the report said.

Willis had a clear message for anyone thinking of trespassing near the prison — just don’t do it.

“If they ain’t out here to visit an inmate or see a friend that works out here, they don’t come out here,” he said.