Carrot on the prison stick
It’s called the South Carolina Department of Corrections, but its record for actually correcting inmates’ behavior hasn’t exactly shone.
Prisons are short-staffed, under-funded and sometimes overcrowded with a tough population. The staff concentrates on holding things together day to day. Then last March, more than 200 inmates rioted at Leiber Correctional Institute — a maximum security facility housing some of the scariest of criminals.
But Leiber also houses some criminals who want to be rehabilitated — who are respectful, responsible and trustworthy. Some of these criminals now reside in Leiber’s new Character Dorm.
Reporters Glenn Smith and Doug Pardue investigated the new program at the Ridgeville facility, which rewards inmates for good behavior by giving them a place to live away from fights, threats and menacing prisoners wanting to stir things up. It also gives them a big-screen television (donated by the community) and movies.
But it’s the fact that they can leave their cell doors unlocked that is most telling. The guards don’t feel a need to lock them in, and the inmates don’t feel a need to lock others out. It seems the lessons they are taught about life skills, building character and responsibility pay off.
And judging from what the Character Dorm inmates said, the dorm is an incentive for other inmates to improve their behavior.
Some people are going to read about the big-screen television and get in a huff. But this isn’t about mollycoddling inmates. It is no country club. Rather it is a smart move on the part of prison officials to reinforce positive behavior, lighten guards’ work and even teach prisoners to share what they have learned as mentors for other inmates.
There are similar units in four other prisons.
The idea was hatched as one element of a program to stem the mental and physical abuse that exists among prisoners and to make prisons safer for employees as well as inmates. Who knew there were at least 252 inmates at Leiber who would qualify for the Character Dorm?
Who knows how many more will change their behavior so they, too, can qualify?
Leiber has also made staffing changes to reduce contraband and allow more control over prisoners.
The Department of Corrections deals with the meanest, wiliest and angriest of prisoners who need their cells locked tight. They don’t deserve a place in society and they don’t deserve any small perks that prisons might offer. They don’t try to change their behavior. They see rules as something else to break.
But for those inmates who are willing to play by prison rules, show respect, use self-discipline and demonstrate responsibility, the Character Dorm is an inexpensive incentive to continue such behavior and inspire others to straighten up.
If a prisoner serves his time and is released, those traits will also give him a better chance of avoiding a return trip to the assaults, threats and fear of prison life.