Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint said the cuts were necessary due to state budget restrictions. The cuts are the latest in a series of cost-saving moves for a prison system that is said to be experiencing a $28 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30.
Ozmint said he plans to replace the accreditation process with what he says will be "tougher" in-house inspections. Before the announced cuts, all but two of South Carolina's prison were accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA). The ACA conducts scheduled inspections, and then offers their seal-of-approval for those prisons that meet their standards. ACA auditors also purport to monitor a prison's strengths and weaknesses aiming to improve operations for both staff and prisoners. The result is supposed to be improved prisons with standards monitored and enforced by an outside agency.
Currently the cost of ACA accreditation is $7,200 per prison in South Carolina, compared to $8,200 per prison in other states. The estimated $250,000 in savings, officials say, stems not only from saving the fees payed to the ACA, but also from the additional costs and staff time needed to bring a prison up to ACA standards. Corrections chief of staff Richard Stroker said it costs the state $140,000 to accredit each prison. He said the cost varies widely from prison-to prison, depending on its age its security level. Stroker noted that the cost of maintaining ACA standards is $90,000-$100,000, with staff time costing $35,000-$40,000 per prison. Others, like ACA's Bob Verdeyen, a former warden, say those numbers are inflated. "They sound high to me," he said.
In late March 2003, Ozmint announced he slashed 148 jobs, mostly out of the prisons' education programs, and that about 1,500 full- and part-time employees have been laid off since budget cuts began in June 2001. Ozmint said that 20 percent of the agency's maintenance budget will be saved by cutting accreditation at the four prisons. "We're going to spend [the money] on maintenance on 29 institutions instead of four," Ozmint said.
The four prisons losing their ACA accreditation are Perry, the state's smallest maximum-security facility with 1,058 prisoners; McDougall, a medium-security prison with 569 prisoners; and two minimum security institutions, Walden and Watkins, with 372 and 212 prisoners, respectively.
Ozmint claims the accreditation process became unnecessary because those prisons were already exceeding standards. Why "pay someone to tell you you're meeting standards you already exceed?'" Ozmint asked rhetorically. He added that unannounced in-house inspections will be more effective than ACA's announced inspections.
Many don't agree, however. "There's no watchdog," complains Mike Davis of U.S. Risk Underwriters, a company that manages insurance for private prisons. Even former South Carolina prisons director Bill Leeke expressed skepticism about self-inspections.
"That's fine to do self-evaluations, but it won't replace a national certification process by any means," said Leeke, who brought the accreditation process to South Carolina during his 19 years as director of South Carolina's prisons.
Verdeyen, ACA's accreditation director, said accreditation helps prisons reduce costs in several areas that aren't obvious, but can actually save a prison money, even after including ACA's accreditation fees and the internal costs of maintaining standards. Verdeyen said accreditation helps reduce insurance premiums and can help defend against some prisoner lawsuits.
"It doesn't guarantee that you won't be held liable, but logic tells me that we would have been sued more times" if not ACA accredited, Verdeyen said, in reference to his 11 years as a federal prison warden. And U.S. Risk Underwriters state that ACA accreditation can reduce insurance premiums by 10 percent at privately-insured prisons.
But Stroker counters that ACA accreditation standards provide no protection in court. "I don't know of a case that a judge said `Because you meet ACA standards, I'm dismissing the case,'" said Stroker.
Leeke, though, points out that accreditation helps prisons fight lawsuits by documenting good faith efforts to improve conditions.
Gaston Fairey, a Columbia, South Carolina lawyer whose prison conditions lawsuits have prompted numerous changes in the past 20 years including his 1982 overcrowding suit that prompted the release of hundreds of South Carolina prisoners and led to much improved prison medical care said he is sympathetic to Ozmint's dilemma, but that ACA standards don't make or break cases. In addition, Fairey points out that ACA accreditation isn't as helpful at maintaining high standards as it once was. He said that things began changing in the 1990s when the ACA was forced to water down its standards in response to pressure from the federal and state prison officials, which fund the ACA with tax dolloars.
And even though tax dollars are used to fund the ACA, it is widely known that the ACA often acts as the lobbying and public relations arm of prison officials. Others are quick to note that some of the worst and most brutal prisons in the country -Lucasville, OH; Starke, FL; and Angola, LA are ACA accredited. Critics accuse the ACA of "selling" accreditations, noting that there is no known case of a prison paying the ACA's fees and then not being accredited by them.
Questions persist, however, as to the logic of cutting accreditation contracts at only four prisons out of 27. If it is such a cost saving measure, why not cut accreditation at all 27 prisons? And why were those four particular prisons chosen for de-accreditation? Either accreditation is useful and needed at all prisons, or not useful and needed nowhere. Ozmint indicated that he wanted one-year extensions on the ACA contracts for 11 of the state's prisons that come up for renewal on July 1.
Source: The State (Columbia, S.C.)
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login