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South Carolina shows the way to prison reform


Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash.


By Emily Havener


Although a lot of noise has been made about the abolition of the prison system, the actuality would require the same parameters as the abolition of the police: namely, the abolition of violent crime, at the very least. Given that this is not just unlikely but completely impossible, it’s hard to imagine a future without either police or prisons. After all, where would we put offenders like Derek Chauvin and Dylann Roof?


However, there is always room for improvement, and the potential for improvement of systems such as prisons is high. South Carolina’s own example proves this. Recent data indicates that our state has the lowest rate of recidivism in the country: Of inmates released in 2017, only 21.9 percent were re-incarcerated as of 2020. This rate has been decreasing steadily from 33.9 percent in 2005 and was boosted with the appointment of Bryan Stirling as corrections director in 2013.


S.C. Department of Corrections communications director Chrysti Shain told me that the first thing Stirling did as director was go to the Columbia bus station where inmates were being released at that time and watch. They were released in their prison uniforms and without money, housing or employment options. They were prey for drug dealers and sex sellers. Stirling was mortified. He told Shain, “They didn’t have a chance.”


Since then, she said, “We’ve made an enormous amount of changes. Our prisons are completely different than they were 10 years ago. It has been a deliberate process to improve them.” First there are changes within the prisons themselves. Classification of prisoners has changed dramatically, resulting in a reduction of maximum-security inmates.


Shain said, “Whenever you come to prison, you’re assessed in many different ways to determine where you will spend time, which prison, what level of security. Since the 90s we had been using a system based on the crime.” Then they hired Dr. James Austin of the JFA Institute, which conducts corrections research across the country. “Now many other things are taken into consideration — education level, previous offenses. We have a meeting when you get here mapping out your goals. We set that out at the start now. Do you need drug treatment? Do you need a GED? Are you interested in a college degree? Are you able to work? We have extensive education and job training programs for every level of custody.”


Then there are changes to help inmates successfully reenter society. SCDC had their first reentry program established by 2014; the next year they were able to turn one of South Carolina’s prisons into a reentry center, and now there are reentry systems for prisoners at every security level. This is due to the successful cooperation of government within its own departments and also with private industry. The DMV and DHEC are involved to make sure released inmates have appropriate forms of ID so they can get jobs and housing. The Department of Employment and Workforce has offices in the prisons themselves, and employers can sign up to join the Second Chance Initiative, which places former prisoners with businesses that need their skills.


“We get calls every single day from employers saying, ‘We need welders, truck drivers, food service workers — are you teaching people these skills?’” Shain said. “The director is good at watching the trends, and the Port of Charleston is a big driver.”


In addition to for-profit business, SCDC has partnerships with multiple charitable organizations such as Turning Leaf, FreshStart Visions and Catholic Charities, just in the Charleston area. Shain says the SCDC could not have achieved the success it has without their support, which has helped to keep costs low.


This trend shows that, although prison abolition might not be possible, the end of mass incarceration could be — and it should be a goal our entire country can support. The U.S. has the highest population of prisoners in the world, at 2.19 million in 2019, and accounts for 25 percent of the prison population worldwide. Given that we make up less than five percent of the world’s population, that’s a disturbing legacy for the greatest country in the world.


It’s also worth considering that the methods that have worked for reducing recidivism could also be applied to programs that would prevent Americans from becoming incarcerated in the first place. MiAngel Cody, an attorney featured in “The Third Strike” documentary about mass incarceration and the third strike rule being misapplied to nonviolent offenders, offers a telling statement about her work at The Decarceration Collective: “For many of my clients, the first system that ever really paid any focus, attention, to them was the criminal justice system. … It wasn’t the educational system; it wasn’t the mental health system; it wasn’t the health care system …”


This needs to change, and the S.C. Department of Corrections has proven that change can be had with minimal taxpayer funds and successful intergovernmental and public-private collaboration. It requires dedicated and visionary leadership, but it also requires that the public get involved by volunteering with and contributing financially to organizations that already exist, and that employers be willing to participate in programs like Second Chance, which offers tax credits.


If you are interested in the Second Chance program, contact Grey Parks at 803-737-0086 or bparks@dew.sc.gov. If you want to volunteer for or contribute to a charity that helps the formerly incarcerated successfully transition back into society, visit freshstartvisions.org or email Tim Terry at tterry@freshstartvisions.org; visit turningleafproject.com or call (843) 297-4980; or visit charitiessc.org or contact program specialist Nikki Grimball at 803-726-7769 or nikkigrimball@charlestondiocese.org.

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