With Congress expected to approve a major package of federal prison reforms after the midterms, South Carolina should be poised to adapt what can be borrowed and build on state prison reforms started by corrections chief Bryan Stirling.
For example, a re-entry program based at Manning Correctional Institution just posted some remarkable results: 69 percent of participants found jobs within a year of release. A few years ago, it was a dismal 22 percent. The Corrections Department needs to expand what’s working to help people prepare for life outside prison walls.
The vast majority of the state’s nearly 19,000 prisoners are scheduled to be released in five years or less. The Department of Corrections should work with the Department of Employment Workforce to funnel as many of them as possible into state, county and city jobs and expand partnerships with industries, charities and nonprofits.
About 30 years ago, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles started a gang and prison outreach program, now known as Homeboy Industries Inc., that has since grown into one of the biggest and most successful rehabilitation and re-entry programs anywhere. The state would be wise to help jump-start something like that here.
Living conditions still need to improve. It’s hard to square a guy like Jimmy Causey, who allegedly ginned up $50,000 online and used a drone to deliver wire cutters for his second escape last year, with what some prisoners say are inhumane conditions.
Even before the April 15 riot in which seven inmates at Lee Correctional Institution were killed, the state prison system appeared to be headed in the right direction, at least from an administrative point of view. More guards were being hired, their pay was rising. The inmate population was continuing to decline, recidivism rates were improving and re-entry programs were being expanded.
And since the riot, progress has been made on many of the problems that led to the violence. More contraband is being intercepted or thwarted, more smuggling arrests are being made and a managed-access system for blocking illicit communications is showing promise.
Meanwhile, a nationwide prison strike came and went with little notice in South Carolina. And “lockdowns” prompted by the riot at Lee were lifted recently.
But conditions do need to improve. And the mostly modest “demands” issued during the strike — ending “prison slavery” and restoring voting rights, among them — need to be part of ongoing reforms.
Part of the problem over the years has been inadequate funding, so it’s a good sign that this year’s corrections budget increased nearly $14 million to $494 million. About $5 million will go toward increased guard salaries, which now average around $42,000 per year and are competitive with other Southeastern states. More than $3 million will be used for deferred maintenance, like fixing broken locks on hundreds of cell doors. About $2.5 million will go toward re-roofing prisons system-wide.
The prison population statewide continues to fall, down nearly 2,000 inmates over the past three years to 18,958 as of August. New admissions are down from 8,798 in 2016 to 7,577 this year. Recidivism rates also appear to be falling, at least through 2015, the most recent year for which three-year rates are available.
The annual cost per inmate now runs about $21,756, or $64.96 per day, up from $18,119 in 2016.
Sustaining the momentum for prison reform will take political willpower as well as taxpayer dollars, factors that were lacking in years past. Mr. Stirling has set a solid course, but he needs the Legislature’s support and that of the many prison-service organizations that strive to reintegrate prisoners into society. And, as taxpayers, everyone has a stake in ensuring that South Carolina has a functional, humane prison system.