When Bryan Stirling first became director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, recently released inmates were dropped off with a bus ticket, some with nothing to their name but the clothes on their back provided through donations.
For some inmates in maximum security prisons, that still remains the case. If Stirling can get enough funding, however, a new program might help inmates as they transition back into society, he said.
“We could do better with the folks who leave us,” Stirling said.
Stirling is asking for an additional $700,000 in the next round of budgeting to take a program that SCDC started at Manning Re-entry and Work Release Center and fully expand it to other institutions.
The re-entry program at the minimum security Columbia prison gives inmates a chance to take educational, vocational or certificate programs, and take life skills classes before being released, according to SCDC’s website. In the six months before being released, inmates learn how write resumes, apply for jobs, dress for interviews and explain their time in prison to potential employers, Stirling said.
Inmates have the opportunity to learn trades such as warehousing, welding, electrical work and brick masonry, Stirling added.
“As a state, who do we want out among us?” said Stirling, who became the department’s director in October 2013. “When people leave the department, they will have a path to success.”
The program also connects inmates with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, which can help recently released prisoners get placed with new jobs, Stirling said.
Currently, the re-entry service is only available to non-violent inmates housed at minimum-security prison Manning and medium- security Camille-Graham, with the program slated to take root in medium security Kershaw Correctional soon, Stirling said. Lieber Correctional, a maximum-security facility in Ridgeville, will also be getting the six-month program soon.
If Stirling can secure enough funding to expand the program, all maximum- and medium-security inmates would also get an opportunity to prepare for life on the outside.
“This population, a lot more things are changing,” Stirling said. “We have to find jobs for them.”
According to a study from The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, recently released inmates who are unemployed or not educated tend to be the ones who return to prison.
“People who leave with nothing, their chances of coming back are huge,” Stirling said.
Former South Carolina prison chaplain Rev. Charles Pollak said expanding the program was a step in the right direction, but called it “sort of a band-aid.” Pollak, who currently sits on the board of the S.C. Prison Reform Alliance, spent many years at Ridgeland Correctional Institution teaching similar classes to those offered to inmates leaving Manning.
The reverend called for the department to begin GED offerings, re-entry classes and skill building the day inmates are admitted into prison.
Last year, Stirling was awarded about $1.7 million to expand the re-entry program to 19 other facilities run by SCDC, starting with Kershaw Correctional in Kershaw, he said. Right now, the department is working on hiring employees to work the new program, which will be housed in its own dorm at the facility.
Currently, 12 of the 17 required non-security positions have been filled, Stirling said, confident he can fill the other positions despite a security staffing struggle over the last few years.
An additional $700,000 allocated this year would help round out the funding and allow the department to hire 12 additional staffers, bringing the total to 29, Stirling said. He is confident the Legislature will award it, despite a long-term push for more funding.
“I think with the success we’ve seen ... I’m hopeful they see the benefits of doing this,” Stirling said. “The question we have to ask is, ‘How much does it cost not to do this?’ ”
Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, said after hearing the department’s presentation to the Law Enforcement subcommittee that he was “strongly considering” recommending funding for the initiative.
“We have a chance of having more productive people to come out,” said Lowe, who chairs the subcommittee. “Any time you can prevent them from coming back, you have cost savings.”
During 2017, South Carolina spent an average of about $15,864 per year on each inmate, according to data from the Southern Legislative Conference.
House budget Chief Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said though education is a priority for the legislature this year, corrections is also in need of attention.
“One other aspect of corrections that I commend Director Stirling for engaging in is the re-entry programs,” Smith said. “If there’s a request for re-entry, that is something I’m very pleased to see that the director would request from the General Assembly. That needs to be a consideration that the General Assembly takes into account as we formulate a budget.”
State reporter Maayan Schechter contributed to this report.