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South Carolina Prison Reform Proposal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been here in South Carolina all week reporting on the Democratic primary held yesterday. But we also spent some time focusing on other issues, including conditions in the state's prisons - this after the deadly riots almost two years ago at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, where seven inmates died and more than 20 were injured. It's been called one of the deadliest prison riots in recent history.

As is usually the case, the riots brought long-ignored problems to the surface such as ancient infrastructure. Cells have to be unlocked with giant keys instead of electronically. Salaries were low, and turnover was high. And programs to help people make it after prison were few to none.

Bryan Stirling heads the Department of Corrections, and he's put forth a budget proposal of nearly $140 million. The proposal, if approved by the state's general assembly, would allocate millions to make physical improvements, improve salaries for workers and conditions for inmates.

We wanted to get a sense of what life is like inside one of the state's prisons, so we visited the Manning Reentry and Work Release Center. It's a reentry facility, which means it's a place where prisoners spend the last six months of their sentences. There, we met Nena Walker-Staley. She is the former warden of this prison, and she currently works on programming for the corrections department overall. She led us into a long, wide hallway.

NENA WALKER-STALEY: We're going in through the tunnel. And the tunnel area is - the school is right here, so they go to their educational courses here. We have our chaplain's office right here. This area's also our chapel, where they have church. And then we have medical in this area - cafeteria, canteen. So all of the major services that they need are right here in the tunnel.

MARTIN: Along one side, three prisoners were sitting against a wall. The Department of Corrections had asked them to share their stories. The first was Christopher (ph). We're only using his first name under a policy set by the department.

CHRISTOPHER: I have my reading in social studies to do, and I'll be able to get my GED. And also, I'm not homeless, but I'm looking to go towards a transitional house. I got accepted last month to go to a transitional house because I'm...

MARTIN: What?

CHRISTOPHER: I'm trying to do it on my own. I'm trying to start over and do it myself so I won't have to depend on my mother or anybody out there, so I won't be a burden.

MARTIN: How - can - do you mind if I ask? How long have you been locked up?

CHRISTOPHER: I've been locked up since '03.

MARTIN: '03.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes, ma'am - roughly 17 years.

MARTIN: Do you feel like you're in a different place now...

CHRISTOPHER: I am.

MARTIN: ...With yourself? What do you think made the biggest difference?

CHRISTOPHER: You know, when you've seen stabbings and, you know, people overdose and stuff like that, it really has a - make you - it makes you look at life differently. Like, you really want something out of it.

MARTIN: OK.

CHRISTOPHER: I don't have any kids, so that's one thing. I want to start my own family.

MARTIN: Right.

I also met another prisoner, Dwayne. I asked him how he ended up in prison.

DWAYNE: I was active duty military and I deal with severe post traumatic stress. So one of the main things was that I was too prideful to get assistance and the help that I needed. But, the good thing is that doors have opened for me since I've been here. And I'm thankful for that - for that opportunity that my situation has changed and I've received the help that I have needed.

MARTIN: Like what kind of help has made a difference for you?

DWAYNE: For me, I was at a prior yard being around other veterans that have been through similar situations - being able to talk to them - being able to open up about what happened to me while I was in Afghanistan has definitely helped me.

MARTIN: And then Philip (ph), who was addicted to opiates. He told us the prison's rehab program had helped him a lot.

PHILIP: You know, in college, I went to a school that did a lot of partying. So I just liked to do drugs and escalated to different drugs and different drugs. And it ended up being my drug of choice. You know, I went through a marriage and divorce and custody battle where, you know, I tried to hide my drugs. And I was a functional drug addict. I'd still be out there getting my work done but still staying high all the time.

MARTIN: Right.

PHILIP: You know, I've learned through some of these classes how those drugs changed the way I thought.

MARTIN: I was going to ask, what do you think made the biggest difference for you, helping you figure out you might be able to have a different life?

PHILIP: I'd say knowledge and learning the consequences - not only on me but on my loved ones.

MARTIN: Could I just ask each of you, though, do you feel like people who are on the outside care about you? You do. Do you mean - you mean personally, family? Or is it more like the - I mean, society, right, for want of a better word. Do you feel like anybody - because prisons are hard to get into, right? Do you feel that people on the outside care about what goes on here?

CHRISTOPHER: I do feel that people on the outside care about what goes on here to a certain extent. Unfortunately, people don't really care about it until they see something happen, such as the situation with Lee County some years - or a few years ago.

MARTIN: Oh, you mean the riots.

CHRISTOPHER: Exactly. The riots where...

MARTIN: The riots - right.

CHRISTOPHER: ...Multiple inmates were killed in the process. In a sense, SCDC has failed the system. The system is failing us.

MARTIN: Did you know about that? You heard about that.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. I was...

MARTIN: Everybody heard about it.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you hear about it? Was it on the news? Or how did you know about it?

CHRISTOPHER: News passes fast in here (laughter)

MARTIN: It was - OK.

CHRISTOPHER: You know...

MARTIN: You have your own information mechanisms.

CHRISTOPHER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Got it. You were in lockdown for months - really, months? Wow.

CHRISTOPHER: Six months when I was there.

MARTIN: Six months you were in lockdown. You were in lockdown for a year. What does that mean? You can't leave except to eat or whatever.

CHRISTOPHER: Take a shower - take a shower once a week.

MARTIN: Shower once a week.

CHRISTOPHER: That's it.

MARTIN: I also spoke with Director Bryan Stirling, who's served in the role since 2013. He says one big factor in the riots was the outdated lock system in the prisons. He says in more restrictive facilities, guards could spend 85% of their time just unlocking doors.

BRYAN STIRLING: It took 42 minutes, 47 minutes to lock and unlock each door - or just to unlock, to let the folks out. And they have to do that several times a shift, so that does not allow them to, frankly, kind of watch and make sure they're doing what they what they should be doing.

MARTIN: I asked him what he thought was the cause of the riot.

STIRLING: The cellphones, the contraband. There was a fight over contraband.

MARTIN: Fight - it was a fight over contraband.

STIRLING: Yeah.

MARTIN: And what was the contraband? Was it - what?

STIRLING: I mean, you name it. It could be cellphones. It could be drugs, tobacco. I mean...

MARTIN: What was the fight about? Is it that people felt people were - I mean, what was the fight about? Was it...

STIRLING: Someone went and stole someone's contraband.

MARTIN: And then...

STIRLING: And then someone hurt someone, and then it escalated.

MARTIN: It escalated.

STIRLING: And then they were able to let other people know, you know, in other dorms via cell phones, hey, there's something going on here. It's gang turf wars.

MARTIN: And what is a gang here? I mean, what is - what does a gang mean here?

STIRLING: I think people join gangs when they come to prison for protection. I think the gangs come and greet you and say, you know, we're going to come and protect you if you join the gang.

We actually have a former gang leader from Massachusetts named Andre Norman who is doing a program at Lee. And he's working with some of our more challenging folks who are incarcerated. And what he tells me and what he tells everyone is that that's what happens. When you show up, they say, either you're with them, or you're with us.

MARTIN: He's talking about the Academy of Hope, a program at Lee Correctional Institution, where the riot took place. They started the program to address gang violence in the prison. The proposed budget asks for similar programs in the state's most high-security facilities.

And then there's the issue of education. Manning Prison is part of the Palmetto Unified School District. They offer GED classes and certificates in vocational training. I asked him how he defends such programs to critics such as free education for prisoners when others on the outside would have to pay. He says this issue comes up even in conversation with friends.

STIRLING: I said, I'll give you a choice. You can have someone who's been locked down 24 hours a day, 23 hours a day, no programs, probably 25% of having a mental health issue, doesn't have a connection with family, doesn't have any money, has nowhere to go when they leave, who do you want sitting next to your grandmother or your daughter? He said, I never thought of it that way. I said, that's how we need to think of it.

MARTIN: We then went to another room that houses the prison laundry as well as equipment for forklift training and other programs. And we talked about their plans for job training and getting people who've served their time back on their feet.

STIRLING: And we watch what they're doing with the economy. So we decided that if they're going to be putting all this money into roads, there's going to be a lot of jobs, and people are likely to get hired for those jobs. So what we did was we bought paving equipment, and we train them, and they get certified. They get there on-the-job training credits. And a paving company can come and hire them almost immediately.

MARTIN: Then we walked into a giant clothing closet. There were racks and racks of shoes, suits, pants and shirts. Nena Walker-Staley said this is an important part of getting prisoners back on their feet.

WALKER-STALEY: I had one guy - I think he'd been in for almost 37 years. When he came in, he was a young fellow. He had never had on a suit and tie ever in life. And so he said, I want a suit and a tie. And he said - he had a grandchild at this point because he had a child when he came to prison. And he said, I want my grandchild to see me for the first time in a suit. So he put his suit on, he about melted.

MARTIN: That was Nena Walker-Staley, Deputy Director of Programs for South Carolina's Department of Corrections. We also heard from the department's director, Bryan Stirling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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