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SC Celebrates Lowest US Rate of Prisoners Who Return to Jail

Bryan Stirling Henry McMaster South Carolina Prisons
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, left, shakes hands with Gov. Henry McMaster, right, after Stirling announces the state has the lowest recidivism rate in the country at under 22% at a ceremony on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the Manning Reentry / Work Release Center in Columbia, South Carolina. In the past 10 years the rate has fallen more than 10 percentage points. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina now has the lowest rate of released inmates returning to prison within three years in the country thanks to an in-depth and expanding program of job and life skills, the state prison director said.

Less than 22% of South Carolina inmates released in 2017 found themselves back in prison within three years, South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said at a Tuesday ceremony at one of the state's reentry programs.

That rate was 33% just before Stirling took over the prison system in 2013. The director said he went to a nearby Greyhound bus stop right after he was hired and was discouraged by what he observed.

“I saw people leaving in prison uniforms — all we did was take the stripe off. They were just given a bag, a little bit of money and said good luck," Stirling said.

During the next eight years, Stirling made one of his chief goals giving inmates as much support as his agency can to make sure they can make it their last term behind bars.

Inmates can learn a wide range of job skills from plumbing to carpentry and cooking to running a backhoe.

But standing behind Stirling to celebrate Tuesday were at least a half-dozen leaders of other state agencies who also offer help. The Department of Health and Environmental Control helps get birth certificates. The Department of Motor Vehicles gets IDs. The Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services helps with substance abuse. And the Department of Employment and Workforce helps them get jobs.

About 71% of inmates who use the employment agency's services get a job when they are released, Department of Employment and Workforce Director Dan Ellzey said.

"It makes common sense to me that if you have a job and a place to stay, your chances of staying out of trouble are probably a lot less," Ellzey said.

Private groups help, too. There are anger management classes and support as people return to families after several years away. Catholic Charities helps inmates find affordable housing.

“It takes a belief that there are some people who end up behind the wire — who have gone off the road to prosperity — can get back on and want to get back on if they have the tools," Gov. Henry McMaster said at Tuesday's ceremony at the Manning Reentry/Work Release Center.

Officials said stopping recidivism saves taxpayer money as well. South Carolina prisons have about 15,300 inmates now, well down from the 24,000 prisoner peak about 15 years ago.

The expanded reentry program started with minimum security inmates and was extended through maximum security in 2019, Stirling said.

The prison system is looking to add virtual interviews so hiring managers can talk to inmates before they leave prison and offer them a job the day they are freed, officials said.

Antonio Sadler came back for Tuesday's ceremony after spending 10 years behind bars. He studied carpentry, took classes to work on interview skills and tests to determine his best abilities to match with careers in the same room where Stirling spoke.

“This place helped me grow as a man and develop as a better human being. The people in this agency are in the business of helping people win their battles,” said Sadler, who is now working out of state.

Stirling wants inmates to see prison as more than just punishment. He tells prisoners to call back if they find problems on the outside. The employment agency has helped inmates find a second job when the first one they find after they are released doesn't work out.

Stirling took the recidivism milestone personally, in part because of his faith and in part because he thinks the effort makes South Carolina a better place to live.

“Do you want someone who has mental health treatment, has a job, is connected with their family and has stable housing sitting next to your loved one?” Stirling said. “Or do you want someone who doesn't know where their next meal is going to come from?”


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.