COLUMBIA — South Carolina prison officials are rolling out a sweeping policy change that will give the state more discretion in deciding where to locate inmates in the state's 21 correctional institutions.
The shift is being made, agency officials say, to encourage good behavior and to better ensure the safety of thousands of prisoners serving time behind bars.
The changes are occurring as state lawmakers continue to review the state's prison system after a violent uprising at a prison in Lee County left seven inmates dead last year. The policy shift, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said, is likely to be a topic of discussion at a House oversight committee this week.
Under the current system, prison officials classify each inmate based largely on the severity of their crime and the length of their sentence. That classification then determines which prison an inmate will be housed in.
The new rules, however, weigh other things like a prisoner's age, medical situation, criminal history and gang affiliations when deciding whether to place them in a maximum-security setting. It also takes into account the work and education programs inmates participate in.
"We will take into account more things than just your time and your crime," Stirling said. "I think it's a more informed and educated decision."
Stirling used the example of an inmate sentenced to 11 years in prison for bank fraud. As it stands, that person could be placed in a maximum-security prison even through he didn't commit a violent crime and has no prior criminal record.
"That's where it stopped making sense for me," Stirling said.
The changes mark a dramatic shift for the Department of Corrections, which has used the more antiquated system for roughly 25 years. It will also bring South Carolina in line with many other states that have already adopted similar policies.
Dr. James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, who is assisting the agency in implementing the new system, said the changes could shift up to 20 percent of the inmate population into lower-security prisons.
That would allow correctional officers, he said, to better identify and handle the most difficult and dangerous inmates.
"It takes into account everything you need to take into account to put the person in the right facility," said Austin, who is the former director of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University.
Prison officials are already starting work on the new classification system, but it could take until February to have it fully implemented, Stirling said.
New prisoners will be vetted using the new criteria and inmates already in prison will be reevaluated to determine if they should be moved to a different setting.
The current procedures for classifying inmates have been outdated for years, said Jon Ozmint, the state prison director under then-Gov. Mark Sanford. Not switching the system, he said, was one of the biggest regrets of his tenure.
"We knew it was broken even when I was there," he said. "It makes our system more costly. It makes our system more dangerous. It doesn't reward good behavior."
Changing the inmate classification system, Ozmint said, will be a "huge undertaking." But he believes it will provide substantial benefits to the state's prisons and the more than 20,000 people living there.
"Everything is tied to that," he said. "So if you get that piece wrong, you get a lot wrong in your system."