After a gang-related riot last year left seven inmates dead and drew national attention as the worst prison brawl in a quarter century, South Carolina correctional officials are hoping a reformed felon can transform inmates into leaders.
The man tasked with turning things around within the walls of Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville is well-versed in the experiences of violent offenders behind bars.
A tumultuous upbringing led Andre Norman to the Massachusetts prison system, where he said he rose to power as one of the top gang leaders in a maximum-security facility in the 1990s. But an epiphany while in solitary confinement inspired Norman to change his life, and he walked out of prison after 14 years. He found mentors and got an education, emerging as a Harvard fellow and a motivational speaker.
He and his team recently launched a year-long program inside Lee, where they're working closely with a small group of gang members and other inmates with influence within the prison. Ten inmates, who volunteered for the program, live together in a housing unit and spend their days in counseling sessions, leadership classes and peer-to-peer training sessions. Over time, officials plan to expand to 80 inmates.
Norman said the initiative is the first of its kind in the country.
"There are very few programs for violent offenders. The general consensus is we don’t know what to do with them," he said.
Nena Staley, deputy director of programs, reentry and rehabilitative services for the S.C. Department of Corrections, convinced agency leaders to bring in Norman's team after she saw him speak at a conference last year. She met Norman five months after the bloodshed at Lee as she was seeking a way to "bring peace" to the institution and assure inmates' families that a deadly riot wouldn't occur again. Norman offered hope, she said.
"I was convinced that these guys at Lee could really feed off his energy," Staley said.
It took persistence to get other officials on board. The prison system in the past had welcomed in former inmates to lead faith-based programs, but the Corrections Department had never before welcomed a reformed felon in this capacity. Staley said Norman is the first to work within an institution and create a program for violent offenders from the ground up.
"At first I was a little hesitant," Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said, adding that he realized that Norman can "walk the walk" and engage with inmates in a way that most staff cannot.
Norman, who's spoken internationally, including at TEDx, said the connection works because in the men he sees parallels to his own experiences. Trust is a huge barrier. So is communication, he said.
He uses the tragedy of the April 2018 riot to try to inspire them.
"I talk about the riot in the sense of they owe. These guys owe: owe it to their families. Owe it to their kids," he said. "The world is now watching you. ... You have to show that you’re better than this and you’re gonna be better."