South Carolina's Try At a Kinder, Gentler Prison System: A Tale In Two Parts

Jan 23, 2020

An inmate at Allendale Correctional Institution gets in touch with his creative side. It's one step in a growing effort within the state's prison system to help ex-inmates live their lives as members of the community when they return to it.
Credit Holly Bounds-Jackson / South Carolina ETV

Manning Reentry/Work Release Center used to have another name. Until 2016, this nearly 60-year-old prison on the outskirts of Columbia was called Manning Correctional.

That might seem like a minor change. It’s not. It was the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ (SCDC) way of saying to the public and to Manning’s inmates that the perception, treatment, and, ultimately, rehabilitation of the men who do time there was going to change.

“We’re bringing programs to the fore,” says Nena Walker-Staley, Manning’s former warden and current assistant director of programs, services, and reentry for SCDC. “For the inmates and for the community to be safer when they get out.”

Staley catches herself for a word she just used. She doesn’t actually call the inmates at Manning “inmates.” Rather, she calls them returning citizens, because by the time they are in the Tunnel, they’re within six months of being exactly that.

The Tunnel at Manning is the last wing men set to return to the community will see of South Carolina’s prisons. Most of them have made the rounds in that system for a long time. By the time they get here, they’re just about ready to enter the world again.

The Tunnel is actually a long hallway where everything from beds to classrooms are situated. Living spaces lined with bunk beds are marked in 90-day increments. As one group of inmates gets closer to the door, they move down the Tunnel – a steady step-by-step voyage that moves them physically closer to the door every three months.

Along the way, the men take part in a dizzying selection of courses, classes, programs, and creative outlets built to make them better and more productive members of the community at large – and more rounded and fulfilled individuals within themselves. Inmates study for GEDs and for bachelor’s degrees through Columbia International University. Their scores and achievements are posted prominently as a way to inspire other inmates to keep trying.

Inmates can also study religion and spirituality in the chapel; learn how to build and repair objects for construction jobs (and, by the way, the materials used to build fireplaces and mantles and frames and so on get broken down to be reused by the next class); play music and write poetry; and learn basic financial literacy and family life skills.

Not everyone knows how to open a bank account or talk to their children in constructive ways, Staley says. A lot of the men getting out of prison will walk into a house where there’s been no father for years. There’s a tendency to want to play the “because I’m your father” card – which she says does not go over well. So inmates learn patience and coping skills; de-escalation and compassion – two more things not everyone has the good fortune to have been taught.

What SCDC is trying to do is turn the old “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude around. It’s a slow push from the top down, Staley says. The overall effort to build more opportunities for self-improvement (and, yes, redemption) into South Carolina’s prisons is the brainchild of SCDC Director Bryan Stirling, who wants to not just salvage the image of the state’s corrections system (which has historically been mediocre at best), but repair the lives of the men and women who will be returning to society one day.

Stirling likes to cite the fact that 85 percent of South Carolina’s prisoners will be getting out within five years – which means a lot of returning citizens. There were more than 18,000 inmates in South Carolina in 2019, according to SCDC. That’s a large inmate population that weighs on the state’s communities and taxpayers, not to mention the SCDC itself, as it deals with a nagging problem of high turnaround and low personnel size.

Staley says keeping returning citizens from becoming returning inmates starts with recognizing them as people with worth and value; as people who can contribute to society, if for no other reason than by not harming it criminally. So what SCDC is doing at Manning, she says, is a kind of prototype for what the department wants to do systemwide.

Manning has certain advantages other prisons do not – namely that it’s a Level 1, or minimum security yard where men who’ve spent years locked up are really looking forward to getting out. They bond with each other in ways that keep them pushing themselves to be better and do better. The guards also tend to stay in their jobs longer, which is a big deal in a corrections system that is seeing a rise in gang activity and is dealing with a hard-to-stanch flow of contraband due to its lackluster employee retention rates.

“The guards are approachable here,” says George, an inmate at Manning. Due to SCDC privacy policies, George’s last name is not being revealed. But after 11 years, some in Level 3 (maximum security) yards, he is glad to be at Manning. Here, he says, there are myriad opportunities for a person to better himself.

After struggling with drug issues that helped put him behind bars in the first place, George wants to work for the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse services (DAODAS) as a counselor. He’s learned to be one inside the system and wants to follow in the footsteps of other former inmates who’ve managed to make the same career leap.

And if he can’t, he’s got carpentry – another skill he learned at Manning – to fall back on.

A fellow tunnel resident, Jacob, found his Christianity in prison and honed his ability to be a motivational speaker at Manning. Jacob’s soon getting out after 15 years and says he’s planning to follow the path of both Jesus and John Maxwell in helping inmates turn their lives around and into something positive.

The experiences these men can bring by having lived the life inmates live can go a long way, Staley says. It’s another reason she finds it important to nurture these men and not continue the cycle of lock-up, release, reincarcerate. She says that ultimately, the investment makes a better community. After all, these men at Manning will be getting out, and that means they will be working with you; shopping at your supermarket; sitting next to you in church.

“Who do you want sitting next to you?” she asks.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @byscottmorgan, and follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio