COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina is considering borrowing $45 million to build new, secure buildings at a Columbia prison to hold nearly 200 people the state calls sexually violent predators.
The Department of Mental Health began the program in 1999 and said it has since outgrown what was supposed to be temporary housing. Since then, nearly 300 inmates have been deemed too dangerous to be released immediately, while only about 100 people have either been treated for their urges and released or died.
If that pace continues, the units the program is currently using at the Broad River Correctional Intuition will be full within a year, according to agency documents provided Tuesday to the Joint Bond Review Committee.
The committee approved the bonds, and the State Fiscal Accountability Authority will hear the request later this month.
The state will used the borrowed money to build an administrative building and 268 single-occupancy rooms, designed to hold as many as 500 people if necessary.
Room for expansion is considered critical, the committee heard. The 1998 law that created the program coincided with truth in sentencing in South Carolina and that means there are many inmates serving 20- to 30-year sentences for sex crimes who may end up in the Sexually Violent Predator program when they finish their time, Rep. Murrell Smith said.
“There is no stemming the tide of the rising costs we have with this program,” said Smith, R-Sumter.
It costs the state anywhere from $60,000 to $90,000 annually to feed, house and provide psychiatric care for each person in the program. Authorities said that is about three times the cost of an inmate in regular care.
Since they have finished their sentences, the people in the program aren’t considered inmates, but instead are treated like involuntary commitments to mental hospitals. The new facility will have a security fence topped with razor wire and be inside the maximum security prison complex in Columbia that also houses the state’s death chamber.
The state has to prove to a judge that inmates are likely to attack again in order to place them into the program at the end of their sentences. Inmates have to prove to a judge that they have been treated and no longer have urges to sexually assault victims before they are released back into the public.
Other big changes are coming to the program too as it will be turned over to a private company. Before now, South Carolina has not followed a trend of states turning over prisons or other criminal justice functions to private companies.
Sen. Thomas Alexander said borrowing the money through the state and turning over operations to a private firm was the most efficient way to control costs that will continue to increase.
“It’s a program and a facility that are not going away,” said Alexander, R-Walhalla.