By SEANNA ADCOX
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's prisons "clearly need more officers," but keeping jobs filled is a struggle, the state's Corrections director told senators Thursday after the deaths of four inmates at one prison and three officers injured at another.
Director Bryan Stirling said a single officer sometimes must monitor more than 200 inmates, depending on the prison and shift. State prisons are nowhere close to the national standard of four officers for every 30 inmates, he said.
Stirling said his agency is hiring more officers and making changes to comply with last year's agreement to improve treatment of mentally ill inmates. But he cautions that decades-long problems in the historically underfunded agency won't be "fixed overnight." That settlement resolved a 2005 lawsuit of allegations dating to the 1990s.
"We're doing what we can with what we have," Stirling told the Senate Corrections Committee.
Across all prisons, he said, the vacancy rate for officers is nearly 31 percent.
The 12.5 percent vacancy rate at the Columbia prison where the four were killed is comparatively low. At the time of the deaths, two officers were assigned to the dorm housing 139 inmates, according to the Department of Corrections.
Hiring for the low-pay job is difficult, though an advertising campaign that includes TV ads and billboards has helped, Stirling said.
South Carolina's salaries for prison guards have ranked among the nation's lowest. Increases approved by the Legislature last year -- following the settlement -- have helped, but officers could still make more working in jails in the state's larger counties, he said.
"Last year, when Wal-Mart increased their salaries, Wal-Mart employees were getting paid more than correctional officers," Stirling said.
Additional pay increases for prison guards could be approved for the fiscal year starting July 1. Legislators are still finalizing their budget plan.
Currently, officers in maximum-security prisons start out at $33,600 and get a $1,100 boost if they're still there in six months. But keeping officers is another problem, he said.
Stirling said he could not directly address the April 7 deaths at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia and Sunday's stabbing of an officer at Kershaw Correctional Institution in Lancaster County.
Senators on the panel were rankled by instructions not to even ask questions about the killings.
"This is an active, ongoing, complex investigation into four brutal murders," reads a letter sent to committee members last Friday, co-signed by State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and Solicitor Dan Johnson. "It is of upmost concern that our ability to seek justice could potentially be adversely affected."
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said when he's told in advance not to ask too many questions, "it seems to me the reason is there are answers they don't want exposed."
The two inmates charged with murder in the prison deaths are already serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for killing a mother and child in unrelated crimes. Arrest warrants say the two worked together to separately lure and strangle four inmates in a prison cell.
No one should be "chilling the powers of this committee to look into, investigate and draw conclusions," said Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, who last week toured the dorm where the four were killed. Regardless of the investigation, "it's no secret there is overcrowding; there is underpaid staff; and there is low morale."
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, suggested getting answers in a meeting closed to the public.
"We have an obligation to ask questions and get answers," he said. "We need to know why these things are happening."