SC prison program aims to decrease violence, help young inmates succeed

State - Regional

The South Carolina Department of Corrections was selected by the Vera Institute of Justice to participate in a prison initiative which focuses on helping incarcerated young adults change their lives through a new dormitory environment.

South Carolina is the second correctional system in America to test out the program. Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut was the first prison to try it after Former Governor Dannel Malloy discovered the idea while visiting German prisons. Malloy learned that prisoners involved were not returning to jail.

With the initiative, inmates aged 18-25 are mentored daily by older inmates to prevent them from recidivism. The mentors and mentees live in the same dormitory unit where they are responsible for creating daily classes and activities.

The Turbeville Correctional Institute and the Lee Correctional Institute have both started the Vera program. According to SCDC Director Bryan Stirling, prisoners with all types of charges can apply to participate, but the mentors are selected.

“It really will transform people’s lives, and why should that matter? 85 percent of the folks that come to the corrections get out in five years. This is truly changing the folks that come in here, so they will go out better and not come back at a very high taxpayer cost and be productive citizens,” Stirling said.

Each prison colloborating with Vera gives the program a unique name. At Turbeville, inmates call it the C.O.R.E. unit. It stands for Community, Opportunity, Restoration and Enhancement.

“From day one, we’ve had the same goals and that’s to teach them structure, help them become better members of society. But, I think we were going about it the wrong way. This new philosophy change has allowed us to use restoring promises in a way that these young men can develop and take ownership of what they’re doing,” said Turbeville’s Prison Warden, Richard Cothran.

Turbeville started the C.O.R.E unit back in September and have 48 inmates involved in the program. Since it launched, Cothran said the atmosphere is different.

“You feel safe walking into a correctional facility and that’s change,” he said.

Some of the classes inmates in the C.O.R.E unit have created include Healing 101, Thinking Outside the Cell, Interviewing 101 and more. Inmates start their day off around 6:30 A.M. each morning in group circle where they open up about their feelings and expectations.

“I’ve talked with family members of these young folks who are in these programs. They don’t even recognize their son who came to prison. The mentors, who are inmates, are really working with these folks to make sure that they don’t follow in their footsteps and spend their life behind bars,” Stirling said.

Last year, Lee Correctional Institution was the site of a gang-related attack which left seven inmates dead and another seventeen wounded. Stirling said giving people chances to transform their lives will bring benefits to the entire state.

“From someone who has committed a crime and been sentenced to the SCDC to someone that can go out, be a productive citizen, pay taxes, earn a degree, be there for their family and never come back to the department of corrections again. That’s the goal with this program. They saw it in Connecticut, and I think you’ll see it here.”

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