RIDGEVILLE — In his nearly 30 years behind bars, a convicted murderer named Thomas hadn’t seen much evidence that the S.C. Department of Corrections was living up to its name.
Character Dorms: Prison dormitory wings open to inmates with clean disciplinary records and positive attitudes.Beefed-up anti-contraband efforts: Includes an additional correctional officer patrolling the mile-long outside fence.Improved security in dorm where last year’s riot occurred: Instead of one officer on duty, three are now on duty seven days a week. And locks were replaced in that dorm.Strict control of inmate movement has been imposed.
The 54-year-old inmate at Lieber Correctional Institution said he long ago stopped being the angry and wayward former altar boy who killed three people. But he said the cash-strapped corrections system mainly existed to warehouse convicts, with few programs aimed at rehabilitating and reforming people like him.
Inmates in Lieber’s Character Dorm:Black 141White 104Other 7Number of inmates by sentence in years:3 to 10 --------------------511 to 20 -------------------5421 to 30 -------------------71More than 30---------------25Life (w/parole possible....55Life (w/o parole)..........42
That all changed last March, two months after more than 200 hardened criminals rioted at maximum-security Lieber, took control of a prison wing and captured and beat two correctional officers.
Officials at Lieber and the state Corrections Department set out to find better ways to control inmates, increase safety and provide incentives for prisoners to behave.
Lieber, which has 1,436 inmates, already had been considering creating a special dorm wing for inmates with positive behavior and no disciplinary problems. The riot, or “disturbance” as they call it, put the effort in high gear.
Warden Joseph McFadden said the disturbance served as the driving force to get the special dorm in place, especially since many inmates were in favor of the plan, increasing the odds that it would serve the dual purpose of reducing problems and providing inmates a positive outlet.
It was “so bad for them for so long, they wanted something like this to relieve the pressure” of fights, threats and noise in dorms with unruly inmates, McFadden said.
Maj. Thierry Nettles, who oversees security, put it simply. “Even in prison you still have some good people. You don’t penalize the people who want to do good ... and there are a lot more good inmates than bad.”
‘Like going to heaven’
Thomas was among the first selected to reside in the innovative new unit called a Character Dorm. Prison officials allowed The Post and Courier to interview him and other inmates on the condition that their last names not be used.
The dorm looks like many others, except for posters on the walls promoting positive character traits and words like “trustworthiness” and “respect” painted on its columns.
The dorm is for inmates who can adhere to the prison rules, because if they break them, they’re gone.
They get a few perks, such as a big-screen TV donated by the community, movie showings and the chance to leave their cell doors unlocked. But more importantly, they get lessons in responsibility, character-building and life-management skills.
They then serve as role models and peer mentors for other prisoners, officials said.
“It gives people the tools they need to make the right decisions, the right choices in life, regardless of whether they are getting out or not,” said Thomas, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. “To me, that is what corrections should be all about.”
An inmate named Mickey agrees. He has served 21 years of a life sentence for murdering his wife in Charleston.
Before the Character Dorm, life could be hell at Lieber, he said. “Inmates actually ran the place,” easily going between dorms, stealing and threatening without repercussion.
“This is like dying and going to heaven.”
The Character Dorm is one of several initiatives Lieber officials have taken to improve conditions and tighten security in the wake of the riot and a Post and Courier series that detailed the numerous challenges faced by the maximum-security facility and other prisons throughout the state.
They include rampant smuggling of contraband — mainly cellphones, tobacco and alcohol — and low pay and sparse training for correctional officers.
The changes at Lieber and across the prison system are largely the result of officials taking smarter approaches to how they run their facilities, since there is little extra money to fund new programs.
At Lieber, McFadden said the changes include something as simple as improved communication between the prison’s top brass and the 218 officers on the front lines. They talk more, and share ideas and concerns. It doesn’t cost a dime, but it has slowed turnover and created a greater sense of teamwork in a common mission, he said.
Staffing levels also have been improved, not so much with extra officers, but with use of overtime and more effective use of personnel. That’s enabled them to add another officer and supervisor to shifts in the dorm where the riot occurred.
Lieber also has stationed two officers outside to patrol the prison’s more than mile-long exterior fence to prevent people from tossing contraband over the razor-wire-topped fences and into the yard.
They used to have just one patrol officer, which made it easier for inmates and their outside accomplices to time the officer’s movements and coordinate contraband drops.
McFadden said the new measures, along with strict control of inmate movement within dorms and in the yards, has produced results — fewer assaults, less contraband and an improvement in inmate behavior.
Last year, 3,036 cellphones were confiscated statewide in prisons. Officers seized 714 phones at Lieber, compared with 449 in 2011. There are no firm numbers available for this year yet, but Nettles said officers are encountering fewer phones since changes were instituted.
Still, McFadden said, inmates are resourceful, and prison officials have to be constantly aware and adaptable.
Character dorms are one way of doing that. The concept grew out of the faith-based units envisioned by former Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint. At Lieber officials opted for a non-faith-based unit so that it would appeal to a cross-section of the inmates.
“How you conduct yourself now and how you conduct yourself in the future is what matters here,” said Dennis Patterson, a regional director for the prison system.
The Character Dorm at Lieber is one of five such units in the prison system, each housing about 230 inmates. The other prisons with Character Dorms are Allendale, Kershaw, McCormick and Perry, where the first such dorm was set up in the state.
Lieber officials hope to expand specialized dorm offerings in the future and make greater use of the residents for mentoring other inmates.
At first, some of the outside inmates treated the Character Dorm folks with distrust and disdain, thinking they were spies, snitches or just collaborators with the administration, said a dorm resident named Rafi, a convicted murderer from Greenville.
Many of those inmates have since come around, and they are willing to listen to advice from peer counselors like him, Rafi said. The dorm is becoming a place other inmates aspire to reach. He understands why. They don’t have to worry about being attacked or hassled, like he once did in the general population.
“It was stressful,” he said. “I didn’t like living in an environment where you had to keep your back against the wall all the time.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5. Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558.
Large-screen TVs are just one of the perks that well-behaved inmates get in the new Character Dorm at the Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.×
One of the several goals of Lieber’s Character Dorm is to promote positive personal traits, including “responsibility,” which one of the inmates was painting onto a pillar this week.×
Lieber Warden Joseph McFadden discusses changes made to the facility, including tighter perimeter security and a new dorm for inmates exhibiting good behavior.×
These weapons were confiscated from inmates at Lieber.×