RIDGEVILLE — At 76, Edsel Taylor is more active than most people half his age. He makes an effort to exercise every day — usually biking between 7 to 10 miles, jogging or playing golf.
It's a big part of what has kept him going in the South Carolina prison system for half a century, an anniversary he officially celebrates Sunday.
Taylor is almost certainly the longest-tenured warden in the country. No one at the S.C. Department of Corrections can find anyone who has served even close to as long — the next closest is a warden at a Louisiana prison who has been in place 30 years.
Some 46 of those 50 years have been spent as a warden, and most of that time has been spent at the MacDougall Correctional Institution. When he started after finishing service in Vietnam, his boss at the time told him there was room in the budget to buy two things: a .38-caliber Chief's Special revolver and a chair.
The chair still sits in his office today — reupholstered several times over the years. The gun was retired decades ago.
"I had no vision when I came of making this a 50-year career. I just wanted to find a job after getting out of the military," he said. "But I liked corrections, and this was my dream job by the time I took it in '77."
A sprawling, 1,200-acre medium security prison, Taylor often walks the grounds to check on the roughly 700 inmates and his employees. It can be a daunting task because the facility is the state's largest fenced-in prison.
Everyone greets Taylor with a smile, almost to the point it doesn't feel like a prison. But that's not to say there aren't challenges he faces coming to the rural facility every day.
"It hasn't been all rosy," Taylor quipped. "There have been days where I sat in that chair saying, 'Why the hell am I still doing this?'"
For example, over his 46 years as a warden, Taylor said he would guarantee he's the one with the most escaped inmates at just over 170 — though most of those came early in his career when the prison didn't have a fence, and every inmate to escape was recaptured. But one story in particular stood out to him.
There were two inmates assigned to MacDougall by mistake in the early 1980s who managed to escape. Taylor was nearby on Highway 176 when he heard over the radio that two men were missing. He happened to run into them, identified himself as the prison warden, and yelled for them to get on the ground.
One man did immediately, but the other got up and ran while Taylor was handcuffing the first. He had no choice but to pull out that Chief's Special and fire a warning shot to get the second man to stop. It didn't work, and he fired again before the man got away. It took authorities and the help of two bloodhounds named Bonnie and Clyde to find the man.
Warden Edsel Taylor keeps a photo album of his career with the South Carolina Department of Corrections at MacDougall Correctional Institution…
After he was finally tracked down hours later, Taylor met the man at the scene and asked why he ran.
"Well, I ran because there was some bastard trying to kill me!" Taylor remembers the man saying.
There have been an almost incalculable number of positive strides made at the prison since Taylor took over. One he's particularly proud of is building the first chapel at a South Carolina prison without a single penny in state funding. Dedicated in 1986, volunteers raised money and helped construct the chapel along with inmate labor.
Another more recent success is the development of a veterans unit consisting of 96 inmates who served in every branch of the U.S. military before their lives took a criminal turn. Walls of the bloc, which opened in March 2017, are adorned with hand painted, patriotic murals and slogans of perseverance. And though it wasn't designed this way, Taylor said the men in the bloc have "disciplined themselves like a character unit" — meaning they took on the responsibility of keeping up and renovating their living quarters.
Taylor, who his associates describe as a "master gardener," is also proud of the farming system at MacDougall. For years, he said the inmates farmed and canned produce for all of the state prison institutions. Now, the focus is on providing eggs for the prison system. MacDougall has 120,000 chickens and on any given day collects over 100,000 eggs — 30,000 of which they sell to grocers in the area.
"We expect one egg per chicken," he said with a laugh. "If we don't get close to 120,000 eggs we go out and try and see what chickens aren't pulling their weight."
For S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, having a warden with Taylor's energy and passion for the job is a blessing.
"MacDougall is one of our institutions that is a shining light, and one of the reasons for that is because it's got good leadership, and it's got a very good warden.," he said. "He's dedicated his life to the state and the department."
Jobs working in correctional facilities are often draining, but for whatever reason, Taylor has taken to it and thrived.
"He's very interested in the welfare of the folks that work for him, and he's interested in the folks that are incarcerated there as well," Stirling said.
Though he's nearing 80, Taylor is showing no signs of slowing down. Just after noon Friday, a group of dozens of friends, family and employees gathered in the visitors center of the prison to surprise Taylor and honor his 50 years in the system. He didn't say exactly how long he planned to keep going, but in his typical joking manner, seemed to say it would be a while.
"I'm not sure how it's been 50 years, but I'm proud to have had the honor as long as I have," he said. "And as of Monday, it will be starting on the next 50 years."