Rehabilitation has almost disappeared in South Carolina’s prisons over the past two decades as get-tough-on-crime laws swelled the number of inmates and budget cuts sapped Corrections’ ability to do much of what its name suggests.

But with the state’s new sentencing reform law — which promotes alternatives to prison for many nonviolent criminals — the inmate population is expected to decline. That could free up resources to help inmates try to mend their lives and become productive citizens.

Corrections Director William R. Byars Jr. came to the agency after directing the Department of Juvenile Justice, where he is credited with achieving a nearly 40 percent reduction in repeat offenders. He did that by transforming Department of Juvenile Justice facilities from being warehouses for wayward kids into vibrant facilities where offenders received mentoring, learned job skills and studied for equivalency diplomas.

Byars wants to try similar tactics in the adult prisons, but first he needs to stem a high tide of turnover and stabilize the ranks of corrections officers under his command.

The prison population has declined by nearly 2,000 inmates over the last three years, but the 22,768 who remain still outnumber their guards by an almost 6-to-1 ratio.

Vacancies and understaffing place a strain on those who remain, and it also limits opportunities for redemptive programs. With fewer officers to watch them, prisoners spend more time in cells, and lockdowns are more frequent when problems arise.

In the current budget climate, Byars said he cannot ask state lawmakers to give him more money to hire more officers. So he has started two other efforts. The first is to end furloughs so that the corrections officers on payroll can all show up for work. The second is to consolidate some prison facilities to concentrate the number of available guards. For example, he said, he recently closed the Watkins pre-release facility at Broad River and freed up about 25 correctional officers.

Once staffing is stabilized, Byars said, true efforts at rehabilitation can begin.

Corrections Inspector General Jerry B. Adger, who worked with Byars at Juvenile Justice, agreed. “We’re totally about rehabilitation. We’re all for it, but you have to have the manpower.”

Michael L. Fair, R-Greenville, chairs the Senate’s Corrections and Penology Committee and said there’s “not much” Corrections can do in the short term to fix its manpower and disciplinary problems because there’s no money to either increase wages or reduce the inmate population substantially.

But he said hope glimmers down the road. That comes mainly from two pieces of legislation: Sentencing reform efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent criminals who are locked up; and the proposed combination of the Department of Corrections with the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. If the two were combined under Byars, Fair said, the Corrections director would be better able to move to a system in which certain criminals would be diverted from prison into the community under intensive supervision.

Unfortunately, he said, the bill to combine the two departments has been held up in the Senate. But if it passes, he said, it could result in a substantial reduction in the number of inmates, and that could free money to improve wages and other conditions.

Doug Pardue is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter and a member of The Post and Courier's projects team. Before joining this newspaper, he served as investigations editor at USA Today, The Tampa Tribune and The State (Columbia, SC)