Behind Prison Walls: Women's prison, truth-in-sentencing

(Columbia) February 14, 2007 - WIS' Craig Melvin is taking a look at the difference between a men's prison and a women's prison, what truth-in-sentencing has meant for the prison population, and how budget cuts have made running prisons increasingly difficult.

You might not picture inmates training dogs, but at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional, WIS found that, according to one inmate, "There's a lot of people on the waiting list wanting to be a dog handler."

If you're not into training the greyhounds, there are several cats who live there. Inmates take care of them too.

And if you're not into pets at all, inmates at Camille Griffin Graham can join the cast of the latest prison play, meet their daughter at a Girl Scout meeting, or stop by a prison beauty shop.

So WIS' Craig Melvin commented to Judy Anderson, who runs the prison, "Drama clubs, Girl Scouts, greyhounds - it seems like this might be a tad bit too soft."

But Anderson says, "I guess it depends on what your definition of 'soft' is. Inmates are going to always be busy and we want them busy doing positive things."

It's not just the programs, the facilities are dramatically different. There are few cells there and the women are surrounded by reminders of the outside.

At nearby Kirkland prison, Warden Bernard McKie has to stack some inmates three deep. Craig had a conversation with McKie about the crowding.

McKie: If your question is are we within standard of ACA, no.
Craig: Not close to standard?
McKie: No.
Craig: Why?
McKie: Because this was built, the concept of it was it was going to be a single cell.

The ACA is a group that accredits most prisons nationwide. Mckie says there's one main reason they're overcrowded, "We haven't always had truth-in-sentencing. We haven't always had 85 percent."

Under what's called truth-in sentencing, or TIS, many inmates are required to serve at least 85 percent of their total sentence.

Last year, there were more people in prison in South Carolina than ever before. The prison population is up nearly 10 percent from 2001. Officials say that's mainly because of TIS.

In 2001, because of TIS, 18 percent of inmates had to serve 85 percent. Last year, nearly 40 percent. Eventually, nearly half of all inmates will be required to do at least 85 percent of their time.

McKie says, "Guys are coming in at a far greater rate, doing longer time than we've got beds to house them."

There's not enough room and not enough staff, one officer complains to WIS. The average correctional officer makes about $22,000 a year. That makes it tough to recruit and apparently just as tough to retain.

In 2005, the Department of Corrections hired 777 officers. Twenty percent of them quit in the first six months.

A newly created incentive pay program has boosted the average pay by about two grand and helped with retention. Corrections Director Jon Ozmint says space and staff shortages are a direct result of one thing - a money shortage, "We spend less on corrections than anybody else in the country as a percentage of state budget and on a per inmate basis."

In 2005, North Carolina spent two and half times more per inmate per day. Georgia spent nearly one and half.

Ozmint says he's able to cut corners by being creative. But he insists you can only cut so much before it gets dangerous. "I want my prison system to take more risks than other prison systems do. Our legislature tells us every year we expect you to manage more risk with less than any other state in the country," says Ozmint. "That's what this is, risk management everyday."

Ozmint says there's not enough money to staff some guard posts anymore and not enough for high tech protection for guards. He explains, "Most states have a body alarm system to let you know when an officer is down."

"A big number to us is, an important number is staff to inmate ratio. Because our dollars are lowest in the nation, our staff to inmate ratio is highest in the nation, 10 to one."

"In our business, money is people."

Money also buys the rehab programs. But those are the places to cut, according to McKie, "We've had heavy programming when there's been better funding.  When the budget gets lean, normally programs are the first thing to go."

Craig asks, "Is there a measurable difference when the programs go?"

McKie responds, "I believe you an rehab yourself, but to rehab yourself in certain ways, you need those programs there."

An inmate Craig met disagrees. He's 60 years old. The inmate says, "Once a drug dealer, always a drug dealer."

This is his second stint in prison. That's not unusual. Nearly a third of those who leave come back some day.

Reported by Craig Melvin

Posted 6:15pm by Chantelle Janelle