The State South Carolina's prison system, struggling under recent budget cuts, says it might need to release workers - and possibly 2,600 inmates - to avoid a $20 million deficit.

Public documents show the agency is nearing its breaking point:

. About 1,600 of the system's more than 22,000 inmates are sleeping on mattresses in gyms and day rooms or living three to a two-person prison cell;

. The number of prison workers - as high as 7,000 in recent years - has dropped by more than 1,000 in two years;

. The agency has closed two prisons.

To stem further cutbacks, the agency will ask the state's top financial officers for permission to operate up to $20 million in the red for the current budget cycle, which ends June 30. The State Budget and Control Board - composed of five top elected officers, including the governor - is set to hear the request today.

The board can allow an agency to operate in the red if it determines the potential deficit is unavoidable and beyond the department's control. Without financial relief, the agency says it must release inmates, close institutions or lay off workers - or a combination of all three.
Just last May, the Budget and Control Board allowed the prison system to run a $6.1 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002. Now, the agency is trying to dig its way out of a deeper financial hole.

Despite the cuts and staff reductions, South Carolina continues to lock up more prisoners. Nationally, the Palmetto State ranks fifth in the proportion of its residents it locks up - one inmate for every 174 state residents - according to a 1999 survey by the Corrections Yearbook.
The prison system began this calendar year with 1,186 more inmates than it had on Jan. 2, 2002 - with two fewer prisons to house inmates. State officials and advocates say the ongoing financial crisis poses a public safety concern.