North Charleston prisoner prerelease center closing

College of Charleston student Meghan Lee (left) and professor Carol Ann Davis lead a poetry class in 2007 at the Coastal Pre-Release Center off Leeds Avenue in North Charleston.

A North Charleston prison facility that had paired inmates with jobs in the community for four decades and provided crews to clean litter from Lowcountry roadsides will shut down April 1 in what state officials said Tuesday was a plan to save money and boost safety elsewhere.

Most of the 39 employees, including 28 uniformed officers, at the minimum-security Coastal Pre-Release Center will be relocated to help ease overcrowding at MacDougall Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, according to a statement from the S.C. Department of Corrections. No jobs are expected to be cut, and the state has no plans to close its three other pre-release facilities statewide, a prisons spokeswoman said.

The department’s director, Bryan Stirling, said in the statement that the shift in resources would allow the state to “reinvest in security” at overcrowded medium-security institutions, such as MacDougall.

Since it opened in 1970, the facility in North Charleston has given inmates within three years of release a chance to improve their work skills, find spiritual guidance, seek treatment for drug or alcohol abuse and attend culinary classes.

Such services will still be available, spokeswoman Stephanie Givens said. The 136 inmates in the 187-capacity facility will be moved to other prisons with similar programs, she said. For some inmates, though, their prerelease prison won’t be as close to home.

“Their committing county is taken into account when they are placed,” Givens said. “But a lot of time, where they go has to do with where we have beds available.”

The state had been paying Charleston County in a lease agreement for most of the land that the facility sits on next to the Cannon Detention Center on Leeds Avenue. The move will save the department $242,716 in recurring funds and $214,439 in nonrecurring funds.

Officials in 2008 considered shutting down the prison along with two other prerelease centers in Florence and Aiken under a budget proposal in the state Senate. But the facilities stayed open.

Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said Tuesday that Stirling had recently indicated to him that the North Charleston site was slated for closure.

But the move, Thurmond said he learned, wasn’t simply a cost-saving measure but a result of declining inmate populations. Thurmond, a member of the Senate’s Corrections and Penology Committee, doesn’t oppose it if the state continues to offer the same programs meant to reintegrate offenders back into the community.

“There is less of a need for this many facilities doing prerelease,” Thurmond said. “It makes perfectly good sense when the population has reduced.”

The state will continue to maintain a building at the North Charleston site for video-conferencing equipment that allows family members here to see their loved ones in Columbia-area prisons. Givens said the department remains committed to the visitation program that it announced in November.

Most of the employees, though, will staff a 96-bed general population unit at MacDougall that the state hopes to open, Givens said.

The plan shouldn’t affect the availability of work and other prerelease programs for inmates, she said. Many of them had worked for local businesses, organizations and governments, and Givens said the state would help the employers find replacements.

The prisoners had been working for Charleston County and North Charleston, according to the state’s website. A litter crew routinely picked up trash along highways in the area.

But the inmate count at the facility had been declining because of sentencing reform and prison programs, Givens said. Recidivism rates for South Carolina prison inmates have dropped from 30.6 percent in 2008 to 27.5 percent in 2010, she said.

“Consolidating institutions is a win-win due to successful programs at (the Corrections Department) and sentencing reform,” Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Corrections and Penology Committee, said in the statement. “This change will allow for a safer officer-to-inmate ratio.”

At the lowest security level, the prison has reported some escapes over the years.

One inmate didn’t show up for roll call in 2012, but he later was found hiding behind a pool house at the West Ashley apartment complex where his grandfather lived.

In 2004, a man serving time for a holdup at a North Charleston bank six years earlier escaped from the prison and was suspected of robbing the same First Citizens branch during his two days as a fugitive.

A man with convictions for shoplifting also walked away from his job at Cactus Car Wash in West Ashley before he was recaptured in 2009.

Thurmond urged the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office to consider the building as a new location for juvenile detention. He called the county’s current facility on Headquarters Road “woefully problematic.”

Sheriff Al Cannon said he had only recently heard about the closing of the prison whose inmates built the jail work camp that now serves as a “warming shelter” on cold days. Using the old prison as a juvenile facility might have benefits, he said.

“Certainly, the location would be advantageous” to be close to the jail, Cannon said. “I’m sure we will look at it.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.