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New reform should increase inmates’ safety in prisons

By: renee.sexton//February 5, 2020//

New reform should increase inmates’ safety in prisons

By: renee.sexton//February 5, 2020//

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For years, frantic families have asked the South Carolina Department of Corrections to relocate incarcerated loved ones who were assigned to cellmates with violent tendencies or committed violent crimes–under longstanding SCDC rules, an inmate without a criminal record but serving a sentence for felony DUI causing death could end up sharing a cell with a convicted murderer with a lengthy violent criminal history.

Beginning this month, SCDC is reclassifying inmates to avoid this situation. The department said matching custody levels with an offender’s level of risk will lower the potential for institutional violence, misconduct, and escape. The new system will classify inmates based on their propensity to comply with rules, commit violent acts, or attempt to escape. Inmates will receive annual reclassification reviews for future security assignments based on their behavior.

From criminal defense attorneys, reclassification is important.

“When considering plea deals or even sentencing at trial, it’s a positive thing to have more of an insight as to what SCDC is going to do with an inmate and their sentence,” said James Ervin of Columbia. “It’s a major consideration when we consider plea deals … certainly family, and the defendant themselves, is looking to their attorneys to determine where they’re going to be and what it’s going to be like.”

The system is similar to one used in about 38 other states and based on criminal justice expert James Austin’s recommendations to the National Institute of Corrections. The previous SCDC classification system, based on sentence length, had been in place since the mid-1990s, SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said.

“It was the right thing to do. It was a safety issue. It was a staffing issue. It’s going to completely transform, I believe, the department,” Stirling said.

Under the previous classification system, Stirling said, the department was putting the same amount of resources into a first-time offender as it was into a verified gang member with a lengthy criminal history. Some inmates were being assigned to higher security-level institutions than necessary.

Some inmates will be moved to other facilities due to the reclassification. Stacey Richardson, the SCDC’s director of classification and inmate records, said the new system will cut the number of inmates in Level 3 facilities–high-security institutions designed primarily to house violent offenders with longer sentences and inmates who exhibit behavioral problems–in half, which should hopefully increase security for both inmates and staff by enabling the SCDC to focus resources on the most dangerous inmates.

Inmates who are reclassified to lower-level security will be able to take advantage of the educational and work skills programs offered at those institutions. Stirling said he’s heard from inmates who appreciate the opportunity to be rewarded for their good behavior.

“The old system didn’t make any sense to them,” Stirling said. “At the end of the day, they don’t have much, but we can give them hope that they can progress down to a lower-level institution with people that are acting like they act, that aren’t into the contraband or into the violence, and that will make our prisons safer. They want to be safe, and their families want them to be safe while they’re incarcerated.”

Stirling said the department is working on an informational sheet for lawyers to discuss with clients about which facilities they are likely to be assigned to.

Review of inmates’ classifications and corresponding relocations are expected to be completed in mid-2020. The security level of some institutions may also change as a result.

Follow Renee Sexton on Twitter @BobcatRenee

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