Gov. Nikki Haley announced Thursday morning that her chief of staff, Bryan Stirling, will be the new state Department of Corrections director. Current director Judge Bill Byars is retiring at the end of September.
Before serving as chief of staff, Stirling was a state deputy attorney general for more than six years, and was in private law practice before that.
He says he'll have two main priorities. "I think it's safety of the workers, safety of the guards, which translates to safety of the general public. But I also think giving these people life lessons, so the ones that are going to get out, so they don't return," he says.
The state's recidivism rate, which is the percentage of former inmates who end up back in prison within three years of being released, is at a 20-year low of 27.5 percent. Three years ago, the rate was 30.6 percent.
Gov. Haley said Stirling is known for calm leadership and being able to work with both sides of an issue.
She says the prison system is something that she didn't pay much attention to when she was a state lawmaker, but learned its importance once she became governor and started visiting prisons.
"The only way that we're going to make these citizens become a productive part of society, not a burden on the citizens of this state, not a burden in any other way, is when we start to pay attention to their life," she said. "When we start to look at what are we doing behind the fence, so that when they get out of that fence, how are they productive citizens? How do we make sure they have jobs? How do we make sure that they can raise their families and do right by the people of this state?"
State Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison criticized the appointment, saying, "Governor Haley continued an alarming pattern today, once again appointing political staff to head a state agency where they have little experience or qualifications in the given field."
But Democratic state Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia, House Minority Leader, tweeted after the announcement, "Congratulations to Bryan Stirling on his appointment to become the new Director of the Dept of Corrections. He will do a fantastic job."
In addition to the recidivism rate being at a 20-year low, the state's prison population is also down. As of June 30, 2013, there were 22,168 inmates in 26 prisons in the state.
But Stirling is facing challenges, including the fact that the agency has more than 500 vacancies for corrections officers. Part of the problem is that the starting salary of $25,060 is lower than what many counties pay the officers who staff their county jails.
But the other problem is officer safety. Inmate assaults on employees are up 4 percent this year.
Gov. Haley says, "You had a lot of state employees that didn't feel safe, that didn't know if that was their last day going to work, and that we couldn't fill jobs because of how scary it was to get there.
Now we've got towers going up at Lee (Correctional). We've got new security cameras, which they didn't have. We've got security things to keep them safe. That's important for us because if there's a prison outbreak we're all in danger."
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