Prison Riot South Carolina (copy) (copy)

A prison staffer walks a fence line at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

COLUMBIA — There could be 4,000 fewer inmates in maximum-security prisons in South Carolina a year from now after they're reclassified under a new system that rewards good behavior and should cut down on violence and rearrests, officials said Tuesday. 

Most prisoners will move to medium- and minimum-security prisons, where they'll have more freedom to move, take classes and potentially work outside the razor wire as they prepare for a job after they're released, Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling told The Post and Courier.

It's a monumental shift in the way South Carolina's prisons have operated for the past three decades, he said. 

Instead of being classified and housed based solely on the crime that sent them to prison and the length of their sentence, inmates who behave can earn privileges.

"It will reduce the violence in prisons because inmates know they have incentives," said Dr. James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, who's helping implement the system here after doing so in 25 other states.

Prison advocates have complained the current system results in nonviolent inmates being housed with the most dangerous, putting their lives at risk. 

"I can guarantee that will not happen" under the new system, Austin said.  

The criminologist predicts two-thirds of South Carolina's maximum-security inmates will move down. Minimum-security prisons could see a 35 percent boost in their populations, while the population in medium-security prisons will increase slightly. That will also require entire prisons to be reclassified, he said. 

"It's a cascading thing," he said.  

Austin plans to present his estimates Wednesday to a House panel reviewing the state Department of Corrections. 

The changes should result in more inmates getting paroled, further reducing the overall population. The state has closed seven prisons since a 2010 sentencing reform law resulted in fewer people going to prison for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes.  

The state's parole board, which is part of a separate agency, should recognize "they've done their time and are disciplinary free, so the risk level is going down," Austin said. "It's a great opportunity to lower recidivism. It's a win-win for everyone. Low-risk people are a better risk of being paroled. And we're protecting the public at the same time." 

People newly convicted will be classified under the new system beginning in February. Current inmates could be reclassified during their annual evaluation, meaning the moves will occur gradually over the next 10 months, he said. 

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The moves will leave just two dozen women in a maximum-security unit, not including the roughly 100 women in restricted units who can't be reclassified, according to Austin's calculations.

Inmates sentenced for particularly violent crimes and the severely mentally ill in specialized units are ineligible for the moves. Also, Austin said, inmates who belong to a gang cannot be moved to minimum-security, which hopefully will encourage inmates to leave the groups responsible for much of the violence in prisons. 

The April 2018 riot at maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution in rural Bishopville, which left seven inmates dead and 22 injured, has been blamed on gang turf wars and the prevalence of illegal cellphones that allowed inmates to communicate and spread the violence to three separate housing units. 

The shifts should also help ease the agency's chronic staffing shortages, as officers can be concentrated at prisons housing the roughly 20 percent of inmates causing the most trouble, Stirling said.  

Beyond incentivizing good behavior, he noted, the system also serves as a deterrent for misbehaving.

Reclassified prisons will "still have double fencing, but the folks in the housing units won't be causing the problems, and if they do, there will be a penalty," Stirling said. "They will end up in a place more restrictive."   

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.