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Women’s prison tries to create community behind bars

May 18, 2019

GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) — In one of the largest areas of Leath Correctional Institution, the cacophony of sewing machines is almost enough to drown out sounds of inmate laughter and conversation.

As women in the Prison Industries’ private sector section create T-shirts for firms that contract with the U.S. Army, Disney and AT&T, other teal-clad inmates are busy at work producing linens, bedding and clothing distributed throughout the state’s Department of Corrections system.

Standing over a semi-enclosed cubicle, a third group of women construct handmade stuffed animals or customized blankets and scarves. These items will find their way to local nonprofits such as Beyond Abuse, the American Cancer Society’s Relay or Life or agencies that work with abused children.

This is prison, yes. But it’s not the kind shown in Hollywood blockbusters or TV shows.

“The judge gave them their punishment. We’re not here to punish them again,” Maj. Michele Carter, who has worked at the Greenwood women’s prison for 17 1/2 years, said. “I tell my officers, you got to give respect to get respect. They’re inmates, but they’re also human.”

Leath, which opened in 1991, is one of the state’s two female prisons. Currently housing 622 inmates — with a maximum occupancy of 844 — the sense of community among its denizens is strong, as it would be, officials say, in any other neighborhood with a 73.7 percent occupancy rate.

State prison policy prohibits inmates from being named or otherwise identified, but prison officials did not bar an Index-Journal reporter from interviewing several during a recent site visit as part of National Correctional Officers and Employees Week. On Tuesday, Greenwood’s city and county councils recognized Carter, Leath Warden Patricia Yeldell and Gilchrist with a proclamation, thanking them and all employees for their work.

“A lot of people think this is the end, but it’s not. It’s the beginning. Being in prison saved my life. Or otherwise, I’d probably be in here for murder,” said one prisoner, who recently completed a system wide peer support program to help fellow inmates who are struggling with substance abuse.

She and others who went through the curriculum wear a badge on their uniform, always available to speak privately with those who might need their advice. The counselors meet four times a week with groups of 15 women.

“If I could make a difference in one person’s life, then doing my time’s not in vain,” one program leader said. “We understand every step that they’re taking.”

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., no prisoner is in her cell. Those who aren’t receiving medical care might be taking classes through Palmetto Unified, the prison’s state-sanctioned school system that offers vocational classes, GED and high school diploma courses and career readiness programs.

Or they could be cooking meals in the cafeteria, doing maintenance and grounds work or taking part in a faith-based program aimed at easing their transition back into society.

Tammy Cunningham, principal of Leath’s Palmetto Unified school, frequently announces over the prison’s public address system the names of inmates who have earned a GED.

“Let me tell you, it’s no greater feeling in the world. It makes you feel so good, it really does,” Cunningham said.

But inmates aren’t the only ones learning at Leath. Samuel Gilchrist, who was named Leath’s 2019 correctional officer of the year, said each day brings a new lesson for him.

“I love the fact that I was accepted being a male in a female institution. I just fell into place, and everybody was welcoming me and willing to help,” he said. “Everything worked out.”

Gilchrist, Carter and other Leath employees understand their roles, but also have come to know many of the inmates personally — their names, their histories, their hopes for the future and their struggles that led to incarceration.

Gilchrist said he also relies on his Christian faith — which teaches him not to judge others — to help guide his daily interactions.

“This person may be an alcoholic, this person may be a drug addict, murderer, a child molester, whatever. None of them ever know that I know anything about them, because I never treat anybody different than the next person,” he said. “I don’t care what you have done. I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to do my job.”

Although Leath has a high-security area for prisoners who misbehave, many live in dormitory-style rooms, where sunlight pours in. There are no bars on the doors. Meals aren’t slipped beneath them, and inmates don’t put their wrists through a slot to get handcuffed as they move from one part of Leath to the other.

The annual cost of caring for inmates in the state’s prison system has nearly doubled since 1988, when it was $12,421 a year per prisoner — or $33.94 a day. That’s compared to the $23,712 price tag in 2018, or $64.96 daily, according to September 2018 statistics.

In his 2019-20 budget proposal, Gov. Henry McMaster asked for an extra $24.7 million in aid to the state Department of Corrections, bringing its total line item to $526 million, a 5.7 percent increase over current spending levels.

That includes nearly $700,000 for a joint training program between the Department of Corrections and Department of Employment and Workforce to prepare inmates who completed their sentences for re-entry into the general population.

One inmate, who has worked for more than 10 years at Leath’s Braille Production Center — which translates textbooks for the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and pays the workers minimum wage — said access to such opportunities helps cut down on internal strife and violence among prisoners.

“When I tell you it makes a difference in how you do your time, it really does,” she said. “These girls have so many opportunities when they come here, and they can leave their past behind. This teaches them that work can get you something.”

Carter said her career has been rewarding, though, at times, trying.

“I love my job. It’s never the same thing. I just learn to leave it at the gate and when I come back in the morning, I pick it back up. You have to be a special somebody to be a correctional officer,” Carter said. “You have to be fair, firm and consistent. If you have all those things, you don’t have any problems.”

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Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com