Inmates in South Carolina prisons are now eligible to attend funerals and visit dying loved ones while incarcerated.
The legislation was signed by Gov. Henry McMaster just before the General Assembly wrapped up the session earlier this month.
State Sen. Karl Allen of Greenville, who sponsored the measure, said he has been working for four or five years to get the bill passed.
“I stayed on it and was steadfast because it was the right thing to do,” Allen said Wednesday. “I hope the community wraps its arms around this section of the population. … We have a responsibility to rehabilitate them so they can be productive members of society.”
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Under the new law, inmates who aren’t security risks can attend funeral services of parents or relatives named on visitation lists, and also can visit those persons if they are terminally ill in a hospital.
The legislation only applies to inmates in state prisons, not county jails.
“It’s the law, and we will follow it to the best of our ability, with public safety being our main concern,” said Bryan Stirling, director of the S.C. Department of Corrections.
The Department of Corrections is responsible for the security and transportation of the inmate, but can request a local sheriff’s office or law enforcement agency provide the service.
Whichever agency provides the security and transportation can collect the costs from the inmate’s family or from a third party on behalf of the inmate.
The Department of Corrections used to allow inmates to attend funerals or make hospital visits in some cases, Allen said, but that ceased in 2005 except in a few instances.
“It struck my heart that nobody should play God and decide who gets to say goodbye to a mother or father or immediate loved one,” Allen said.
Over the years, Allen said others recognized that morale among inmates was low and that allowing funeral or hospital visits could help.
“We decided that everything we could do that was humane and appropriate, we should do,” he said. “I presented the case in a manner that jumped all hurdles.”
Spartanburg County Councilman Michael Brown, a criminal defense attorney, said allowing inmates to interact with family members is a step in the right direction.
“It’s fundamental to every situation that people have loved ones. In terrible circumstances, it’s hard to get on a road to rehabilitation,” Brown said. “It can have an adverse effect when you don’t have the ability to interact with loved ones and pay final respects to someone.”
Allen said more contact with family members improves inmates’ chances of rehabilitation, so they can become productive members of society.
Jimmy Cheeks, senior recruiter with the Spartanburg-based employment service company Personnel Solutions, said many of the ex-offenders he works with on lack hope for the future.
“I would love to see some of the inmates reunited with their family members, especially during trying times like that,” Cheeks said. “A lot of people incarcerated are first-time offenders. … They have turned out to be some of the best workers, and a lot have been hired full time.”