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Amy Barch, director of the Turning Leaf project, leads a class Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

South Carolina prisons are not rehabilitating criminals — they’re training them.

In most of the state’s roughest correctional facilities, the yard is not so different from life on the street. Inmates may have to sell drugs to survive, join a gang for protection and constantly watch their manners — and their six — to avoid brutal assault.

Solitary confinement is their only peace.

The riot last week at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, which left 7 dead and 22 seriously wounded, is only the latest evidence of a failing system that not only perpetuates a criminal lifestyle, but can leave parolees suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and serious trust issues.

“It’s like a war zone,” says Amy Barch, who has worked with recidivists for more than a decade. “These people go into an environment where violence is accepted and natural, and they can’t escape it.”

The state does little to protect these people, or prepare them for life in polite society when they’re released. Unsurprisingly, more than half will end up back inside. After committing more crime, of course.

Which doesn’t help them, their victims or taxpayers.

But don’t expect state officials to do much about this. It would cost substantially more than $20 million a year to make prisons safer.

And, even though it’s fiscally prudent and morally right, spending tax money on criminals is just bad politics.

Warehousing or rehabilitation?

Barch and her staff at North Charleston’s Turning Leaf Project see the results of the state's prisoner warehousing system every day.

Turning Leaf rehabilitates violent repeat offenders, and it’s becoming a national model because it gets results. The most comprehensive recidivism study ever conducted found that more than half of inmates are re-arrested within a year of their release.

Within five years, 75 percent are back in jail.

But 75 percent of men who complete Turning Leaf’s program stay out of jail.

Barch uses cognitive behavioral therapy to teach felons about personal responsibility, empathy and the consequences of their actions. They are taught to resolve problems without violence, which is the exact opposite of what they learn in prison ... and on the street.

“People talk about rehabilitating prisoners,” Barch says. “Someone said to me the other day some of them have never been habilitated.”

All that is no easier than it sounds, particularly working with men who’ve spent years in South Carolina prisons, where compromise, negotiation and problem-solving is solely for the weak.

Joe McGrew, the lead classroom facilitator at Turning Leaf, says his students often keep their guard up. Many of them show up in his office at some point to ask what he’s getting out of this deal.

They are unaccustomed to anyone without ulterior motives, or not running a scam.

Barch says a program like Turning Leaf would probably reduce violence in South Carolina prisons. It might not reform everyone, but it might help stop them from killing each other.

But that isn’t even a consideration for the Department of Corrections. The prisons don’t have enough guards to keep the inmates safe, much less civilian psychologists.

A good investment

The state Department of Corrections runs 21 prisons and houses nearly 20,000 inmates.

Right now, the department has about 1,900 guards — and 650 vacancies. It would cost more than $20 million to fill those jobs, assuming the state can find people willing to risk their lives for little more than $30,000 a year.

It is far cheaper for politicians to simply grandstand, or find someone to blame.

Well, Barch monitors the state prison system closer than anyone, and she says Corrections Director Bryan Stirling is definitely not the problem.

“I have a lot of respect for him; he’s been most supportive of our program,” Barch says. “But Corrections is so understaffed they can’t run programs in the prisons because they don’t have enough guards to protect the volunteers.”

That is ridiculous.

Stirling knows the value of true rehabilitation. He has provided a free building for Turning Leaf, and state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, has gotten the program some funding. But it is still a small operation. Again, probably because spending money on criminals is bad politics.

But rehabilitation is an investment that would eventually pay the dividends in lower crime and lower prison costs.

If lawmakers truly want to reduce recidivism and prevent more deadly prison riots, for once the fix is simple. Hire more guards — and hire Turning Leaf.

Until then, South Carolina is only going to be churning out more criminals.

Reach Brian Hicks at