BISHOPVILLE, S.C. (WIS) - A new state prison program aims to combat violence and inspire the system’s most powerful and influential inmates a year after a deadly prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution left seven inmates dead and nearly two dozen others injured.
The program, initially deemed risky by SCDC officials, was unveiled in late spring.
The Academy of Hope aims to bring about positive leadership from the system’s most influential inmates. To do so, prison officials brought gang leaders and other influential inmates from prisons across the state to Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility, where they now live together.
Nearly 40 inmates live in their own cell block at Lee Correctional, taking classes together as part of the Academy of Hope and listening to a wide variety of guest speakers.
“When the program started, there was a little turmoil among the men,” one inmate who participates in the program said. “But that’s no longer the case.”
In fact, SCDC officials said since the program’s inception almost four months ago, there have been no inmate or staff assaults. Instead, it’s been peaceful.
“I’ve been in just about every major prison in the state of South Carolina and I’ve been in just about every dorm in every prison in the state,” one inmate in the program said. “This is the first dorm in the 38 years I’ve been incarcerated where I have not seen a shank, have not seen a fight, and I have not seen an assault. That is mind-blowing within itself because anything can happen at any time and it doesn’t happen here.”
Inmates in the program who were housed at Lee Correctional during the 2018 riot said the culture changed after seven inmates were killed.
“There was no movement. Everything was shut down,” one inmate said. “The attitude in reference to us was detrimental. It was very crazy.”
The Academy of Hope is one of dozens of programs offered by SCDC, but some inmates said it’s the first program they’ve taken part in that works. One reason for that, they said, is being treated like a human being.
“It’s beautiful for one thing, but it’s something that’s not hard to achieve,” an inmate said. “It’s something that could have been going on. It’s all about how you treat people. You treat people like people, they’ll act like people. That’s the golden rule to put it in a nutshell.”
On Wednesday, participants received a visit from Stedman Graham, who gave inmates a lesson on leadership and finding a purpose and vision for the future. Graham said more than 40 years ago, he worked at a prison in Chicago, but up until his visit to Lee Correctional, he had not returned behind prison walls. Graham is also well-known for his long-term relationship with Oprah Winfrey and has authored more than a dozen books.
Andre Norman, the creator of the program, said he was initially approached by an SCDC official while at a conference in Minnesota. Unwilling to take “no” for an answer, Norman agreed to help SCDC combat the violence and high number of inmate deaths occurring system-wide.
“I talked to over 8,000 men during my tour of 10 facilities and found out why they were hurting, angry, fighting each other and killing each other,” Norman said. “It doesn’t negate any criminal act they’ve committed, but they’re hurting and they’re hurting others as a result.”
Norman himself spent 14 years incarcerated and employs several other people on his staff who have served time. They’re accompanied by three retired U.S. military members.
“People don’t come to jail for being bad. They come to jail because bad things have happened to them and they transfer it onto someone else,” Norman said. “This is where your problems in your state end up. They don’t start here.”
The goal of the program is to instill leadership and self-purpose qualities into the inmates, who will then return to their respective yards and teach others what they’ve learned.
“There is one percent of the entire facilities and populations that are the true leaders,” he said. “If we can turn the one percent, they can then turn the 99.”
According to several inmates within the program, being influential can be life-saving while serving time. But channeling that influence into a positive space is a first for many of the men.
“Many men, not just myself, many of these guys, I’ve known them for years,” an inmate said. “I’ve watched them break up fights because of their influence, I’ve watched them stop assaults and batteries because of their influence, people listen.”
Norman said the program is the first of its kind in the United States. Both he and the inmates involved believe it is working and will prove successful long term.