South Carolina’s Corrections Department is taking a page out of Europe’s playbook, starting a pilot program to change how young inmates in medium- and high-security prisons are treated.
The state is the second – behind Connecticut – to adopt the Vera Institute of Justice’s Restoring Promise Initiative, a program that uses mentors, classes and community meetings in an effort to change the prison experience so that inmates don’t continue a life of crime after their release.
The program also is expected to curtail inmate violence and help retain prison guards, in part by giving them more training and purpose.
A Restoring Promise program was started in November at the medium-security Turbeville Correctional Institution. The program now is being expanded to the Lee Correctional Institution, the maximum-security prison in Bishopville where seven inmates were killed in a deadly, hours-long riot last year.
Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling outlined the initiative while testifying before the S.C. Senate’s Corrections and Penology Committee on Wednesday.
Stirling also told lawmakers the state agency still struggles to hire and retain corrections officers. It needs at least 700 more guards to be fully staffed.
But, Stirling said, he is proud of programs started since he took over the agency in 2013, saying they have helped curb the prison system’s recidivism rate. That rate, which measures the number of inmates who commit new crimes after being released from prison, now is the fifth lowest in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Restoring Promise could help drive down that number further, Stirling said. The program was pioneered in Connecticut after the Vera Institute of Justice took that state’s corrections leaders on a 2015 trip to Germany to learn how Western European countries rehabilitate their inmates.
The program is being used by Connecticut’s state prison system and at a county jail in Massachusetts. “They raved about the program,” Stirling said.
The program gives inmates a daily schedule more akin to the outside world than the typical prison routine, said Alexandra Frank, project director for the nonprofit Vera Institute.
The inmates, ages 18 to 25, have a morning check-in where they talk with each other and corrections officers about the day ahead, their goals and their concerns. They take a full day of classes, learning to balance checkbooks and resolve conflicts nonviolently.
The young inmates also meet with corrections officers trained by the Vera Institute and talk with longtime inmates who act as mentors. Then, the inmates meet again as a group at night to discuss their day.
“It’s very much based in this idea ... that community is what will support young people in the long run,” Frank told senators. “We partner with family, and family connections lay at the bed rock of the whole initiative.”
Frank said the program focuses on younger inmates because they have the highest incarceration rate and most often are involved in prison violence. Corrections officers are trained for two weeks about how to be better teachers and mentors to the young inmates.
The program will start small, with a dozen inmates at each facility. But it could grow to encompass an entire prison dorm, with dozens of inmates, Stirling said.
“It’s going to make it safer for the staff, for the people incarcerated,” Stirling said, “and it’s going to make it safer for the public when these folks leave.”