RIDGEVILLE — Things aren't like they used to be.
That's what Nena Staley, the director of the S.C. Department of Corrections' reentry and rehabilitation programs, told a group of about 90 inmates last week.
"They have jobs waiting for you when you get out," she said, describing how often employers have called her in recent months to talk about hiring soon-to-be-released offenders.
And they often aren't minimum-wage jobs, or even jobs that pay $10 an hour. They're looking at potential gigs that pay $15 an hour or more, she said to the group, the corrections agency's first-ever maximum security reentry program participants.
The department has opened a reentry center at Lieber Correctional, marking the first time it will offer job training and other reentry services at a maximum-security prison.
The launch was the final piece for the SCDC's reentry program, which director Bryan Stirling and Staley started in 2014.
To reflect the change, the facility has been renamed the Lieber Correctional Institution and Reentry Center.
The program itself has been modeled after the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections' "Going Home for Good" program. Staley visited facilities in Ohio to see it firsthand and opted to draw from the state's structure, even keeping the same name.
"Going Home for Good" will be a two-year program at Lieber, significantly longer than those offered now offered in minimum- and medium-security facilities.
About 85 percent of offenders spend less than five years in South Carolina's prisons, but some maximum-security offenders are serving decades-long sentences, meaning the process to prepare them for life on the outside could be much more involved.
Eventually, every offender who participates in the program will do so for the full two years, but right now, the men who make up the program's first cohort have anywhere from six months to two years until release.
Staley said she wanted to stagger the initial group, so that offenders with less than two years of their sentence left could participate, and so the other men in the program could hopefully see their peers' success more quickly.
If everything goes as planned, she said, the first graduation ceremony will be in about six months.
Before taking over the reentry programs for the state, Staley was the warden at Manning in Columbia, which became the first South Carolina prison facility with a reentry program in 2016. Minimum-security offenders go there during the final months before their release.
Since then, reentry programs for medium-security offenders were launched at Kershaw in Lancaster County for men and Camille Graham in Columbia for women.
Former inmates have historically had some of highest barriers to finding employment, but labor shortages in states like South Carolina are opening up more opportunities for second chances.
Job growth in the Lowcountry, specifically, drove the decision to base the program at Lieber, Stirling said, pointing to places like the Port of Charleston, which supports a robust trucking industry that's in need of drivers.
Men will be able to work toward getting their CDL, or commercial driver's licence, while at Lieber. A machine that simulates how to drive a truck was recently installed there, and a retired CDL instructor has signed on to teach offenders.
Men in the program will also be able to learn trades such as plumbing, landscaping and carpentry. They can get their GED and professional certifications, and prepare the documentation they'll need to get a job, such as birth certificates and driver's licenses, before their release.
Staley said they plan to bring employers to Lieber to do job interviews on-site.
Private companies and nonprofits as well as other state agencies are expected to help with the programming, which officials said could also include help for offenders dealing with drug addictions and anger-management issues.
The approximately 90 men in Lieber's program now live together. Eventually, another wing of the building will be opened, effectively doubling the number of participants in the program at one time.
When Staley walked into facility a couple months ago, she knew some changes had to be made.
"You cannot inspire people in that type of setting," she said.
In the weeks since, the facility was prepped for an official unveiling last week. What had been an unused room became a small classroom with several desks and chairs. Gray doors were painted over in alternating colors, and inspirational phrases and illustrations were painted on the walls.
One shows a man dressed in his bright orange "SCDC" clothes, facing a forked path, the "Road to Reentry." In the word "HOPE" painted on another wall, two arms reach forward, gripping the sides of the "H" like prison bars.
Several local and state officials spoke at the reentry center's unveiling, including Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who referenced some of the challenges the SCDC is facing. The state's wardens are "overworked and underpaid," he said.
The state's prison system has had chronic staffing issues. About a third of the officer positions across 21 state prisons were vacant as of Aug. 1, according to a recent report.
Meanwhile, the state's recidivism rate — the relative number of prisoners who commit new crimes after being released — has been among the lowest in the country in recent years. In a 2017 report from the Virginia Department of Corrections, South Carolina had the third-lowest three-year reincarceration rate, at about 25 percent.
That figure has dropped somewhat since then, according to the most recent data from the SCDC.
Stirling said their hope with the reentry programs is to see those rates drop further and former inmates' outcomes improve.
"Our goal is public safety," he said. "We want them to learn here and then go out there and earn a living."