San Quentin prison
South Carolina has not been able to execute prisoners because it has run out of lethal drugs. Stephen Lam/Reuters

South Carolina lawmakers are contemplating new legislation that would allow the state to execute death row inmates using the electric chair.

Politicians met for a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday (10 January) to discuss the new bill proposed by Republican Senator William Timmons. The bill would force prisoners to undergo execution by the electric chair if the option of lethal injection was not available.

Under current law, prison authorities may only use the electric chair if prisoners elect for that execution method.

South Carolina is currently unable to execute death row prisoners because its supply of lethal chemicals expired in 2013. There is a national shortage of the powerful anaesthetic sodium thiopental, which forms part of a three-drug cocktail used in injections. Global drug companies are reluctant to resume production of the drug due to ethical concerns and the potential of class-action law suits from human rights organisations and prisoners.

There are 35 prisoners currently on death row in South Carolina. The last execution took place in 2011.

State Governor Henry McMaster has called on the legislature to introduce a "shield law" that would allow the supply of drugs covertly. This proposal, also discussed at the preliminary subcommittee hearing, would allow executions in the state to finally resume, proponents say.

"I'm not changing any options, I'm just changing the way we're operating within the legal structure," Timmons said.

The electric chair was last used in 2008 during the execution of James Earl Reed, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of his ex-girlfriend's parents. Reed opted for the electric chair, but this move has not been repeated.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he hoped that further discussions would take place soon.

"I think some of the attention over the last couple of months has educated a lot of legislators about just how big of an issue it is," Massey said. "So I'm hopeful something is going to pass because I think people more so now than before recognise the immediacy of the problem."