Behind Prison Walls: The life of inmates

(Statewide) February 13, 2007 - WIS' Craig Melvin is going behind prison walls in South Carolina to find out what day-to-day existence is once your freedom is stripped away from you. There are about 24,000 inmates scattered around the state in 29 different institutions. Craig started at the Broad River Correctional Center.

Prison life begins without glamour. There's a health screen, a haircut, a picture for a state photo ID - and a shower.

The inmates strip their clothes on command for the mandatory cleaning and health screening, revealing any tattoos that may brand them as involved with certain gangs. That helps officials in monitoring them at SCDC.

There are about 24,000 inmates scattered around the state in 29 different institutions, but before being assigned to a prison, all inmates start at Kirkland Reception and Evaluation.

The walls don't discriminate.  Corrections Director Jon Ozmint sees all ages, "When I come to the R and E yard, I always give the old ones a hard time about being too old to come back."

Some shuffle along, others wish they could. Some get pushed, but all move in straight lines outside and inside the cafeteria.

Ozmint is pleased with the food service, "Some of our equipment is very old, but you won't find a restaurant in Columbia in the middle of a breakfast cycle, whose kitchen is as clean as ours."

Not only do inmates clean the kitchen, they chop, mix, knead, roll and cut.

Inmates who work in the cafeteria don't get paid, but there are inmates who do.

Supervisor Norris Chapman explains the job, "We bring in wood from a company. We scrape it to make it look antique. That drives up the cost of the wood. We send it back to the manufacturer, and they sell it to go in houses."

It's big business. Last year, an outside company paid the prison about $55 million for the faux flooring.

The prison pays the 200 inmates who work there, but they have expenses, according to Chapman, "If they owe child support, child support is deducted. If they owe restitution, restitution comes out of that. They pay room and board to the Department Of Corrections out of their minimum wage."

Nearly all inmates work and when it comes to where they work, the inmate population is integrated. For the most part, inmates work together regardless of their offense or length of their sentence.

But inmates are housed differently.

Anna Moak is a nurse at nearby Broad River Correctional. She talks about one of the separate groups, "We have an HIV/AIDS population. At any given time, 400 to 500 if not more."

Moak says, "They support one another, they assist one another."

Those inmates get a good bit of taxpayer assistance too. In prison, HIV/AIDS drugs cost about $2,000 a week per inmate.

Moak knows many couldn't meet the cost of the drugs they take in prison, "I have no doubt that the medications they are getting here may be more difficult to get on the outside."

Ozmint believes as a result when some HIV positive inmates get released, they manage to find their way back to prison. "This is the only place where people are guaranteed healthcare."

And not just standard healthcare, but the Corrections Department also provides mental health care. That grates on Ozmint, "I think it's insane to have a Department of Mental Health and nobody can require them to treat the largest group of mentally-ill patients in the state."

The mentally ill inmates live in another area. They're separated because, according to Doctor John Solomon, "they're extremely psychotic or they have some kind of an adjustment or anxiety disorder that's crippling, so they can't go into the general population."

Doctor Solomon is the Department of Corrections Mental Health Director. He's not sure how much help the mentally ill get in prison. "Do we make them better?" asks Craig.

Dr. Solomon says, "I don't know. I honestly don't know."

But he has a goal, "If we can keep people stabilized. If we can help them accept the reality of their circumstances, I think we have done a pretty good job."

Ten percent of the state's prison population is mentally ill.

According to Ozmint, the vast majority of those in prison have another type of illness. "Twenty-five to 35 percent of them are here for actual drug crimes, but 65 percent are here on drug or alcohol-related offenses, meaning drugs or alcohol had something to do with their commission of an offense."

WIS found for many, drugs are the offense - again and again.

"This is about my third time," one inmate tells WIS' Craig Melvin.

"Why do you keep coming back?" Craig asks.

"Drugs," says the inmate.

Another inmate says he's now 60-years-old.

Craig asks, "Don't you think that's a little too old to be running coke?"

"How old is too old?" says the prisoner.

Ask Ozmint about inmates like the 60-year-old, about whether it's about warehousing, or rehab, and you get this response, "This is what you can do. There are people who believe you can save everybody and you can't."

There were some inmates Craig found who claimed to be changed - saved.

"Now, that the Lord has saved me, I realize there's a purpose in my life."

The newest prison program is designed to train disciples for Christ. When inmates complete the program, they'll be dispatched to other prisons around the state to preach the Gospel.

Craig spoke to one inmate who thinks it's working. Craig asks, "Do you think if you'd had this experience 20 or 30 years ago, you might not have ended up here?"

The prisoner responds, "I'm sure of that."

Reported by Craig Melvin

Posted 6:15pm by Chantelle Janelle