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SC prison officials using 'Violence Indicator System' prediction statistics to reduce violence

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Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, visits with inmates at Lieber Correctional Institute in Dorchester County on Friday July 1, 2016. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — Parole denial, a death in the family, losing a prison job or getting out of COVID-19 quarantine. Those are among the stressors South Carolina prison officials know might trigger an inmate to lash out. So, they're working to defuse the tension before that happens. 

Since September, the state's prison agency has used its extensive data on inmates' lives to identify who might be on the verge of a meltdown and intervene before they potentially erupt. 

Dubbed the "Violence Indicator System," it brings to mind "Minority Report," the 2002 movie where a "pre-crime" police force stops murders by arresting people before they kill.

But in reality no psychics foresee the future. And there are no arrests or punishments for something that hasn't occurred. Instead, the system involves a weekly crunch of data and communication.

"One of the things that impressed me the most is that sometimes people just want to be heard," Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The Post and Courier. "They just want someone to talk to. They’re no different from anybody else, and I think that’s bringing the temperature down.

"The answer may be 'I’m sorry, no, I can’t do what you want.' But they’re heard. Or it may be 'Yes, we can look into that,'" he said. 

Either way, officials hope a rapport is established so that when there is trouble brewing, the inmate feels comfortable approaching the warden, Stirling said.  

The simple-sounding concept is proving successful. Assaults, whether between inmates or on officers, declined by 17 percent between the statewide rollout and mid-December, he said.

The hiring of a single person made it possible. Cheryl Bolchoz, a biostatistician, developed the data-crunching tool that spits out a list of names every Monday for each prison.  

"It's basically just statistics," Bolchoz said. "The beauty of it is that it’s dynamic. Every week changes. I keep adding information to it from previous assaults and characteristics, and every week it comes out a little bit different."

The list is used subtly, said Brian Kendall, warden of maximum-security Lieber Correctional in Dorchester County, which piloted the system in August.  

Kendall said he and four others on his prison's leadership team are the only ones to see the list, which generally has 20 names. They divide it up by prison section and go visit that area to talk to the identified inmates, as well as others, so as not to make it obvious, he said.

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"I never want the inmate to know he’s on a list, so I go down and I stop at three or four cells, but in the meanwhile there’s one person I want to talk to on this list," said Kendall, who helped train other wardens on how to use the list.

The goal is to have an enlightening discussion. 

"I'm asking about his personal life. Is everything OK at home? Is he talking to family? I slowly progress to what’s happening in his unit," Kendall said. "I’m not asking is a fight going to happen. What I am asking is what’s the temperature like, meaning, is it safe down here? What can I do to make it better?"

Most inmates do open up and talk to some extent. For those who don't want to talk to the warden, he'll make a note and send someone else from the leadership team to try again a day or so later.

Many on the list have been violent in the past, so seeing their names is no surprise, and some pop up on the list repeatedly. But others wouldn't remotely be on his radar, Kendall said. A conversation with one such inmate stuck with him.

"His whole demeanor changed as we had our discussion. At the end, he was actually laughing with me, and he’s not the type of inmate who would normally laugh," Kendall said. "Did I prevent an assault? There's no way of knowing, but his demeanor definitely changed, and I felt good leaving there."

Stirling readily acknowledges he borrowed the idea, and that it won't prevent all violence. But it can help.

After the April 2018 riot at Lee Correctional left seven inmates dead and 22 injured, marking the nation's worst prison riot in nearly a quarter century, Stirling asked his colleagues in other states about successes they were having that he could copy. He learned about the predictive tool from Indiana while at a national conference.

"What we’re doing is using analytics and technology to make prisons safer for everybody," Stirling said. 

He also called it a cost savings. 

When an assault doesn't happen, that also means there's no lawsuit. No medical treatment is needed. And officers don't have to be pulled away from their normal duties to transport an inmate to a local hospital.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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