Life in prison is often characterized by dull routines, strict rules, and a bland diet. These stereotypes, which often inform perceptions of prison and prisoners, neglect to celebrate the positive, uplifting work that happens inside the walls of modern-day prisons, particularly those in South Carolina, which has the lowest recidivism rate in the country, according to a 2021 report conducted by the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Organizations and individuals from the grassroots level to the South Carolina Department of Corrections have demonstrated their commitment to providing opportunities and resources to inmates. Rehabilitation, second chances, and successful reentry are the name of the game, all of which are underscored by a goal of fostering opportunities for personal growth and in consequence achieving lowered recidivism on the state level.
“We try very hard to make sure people are better when they leave than when they arrived,” says SCDC Director Bryan Stirling. “Re-entry begins at entry. We’re so grateful to our community partners who walk hand-in-hand with us on this journey.”
The SCDC Industries Frame Shop
Perhaps at the top of the pyramid are the prison rehabilitation programs put in place by the SCDC. According to Chrysti Shain, director of communications, the array of educational and employment-related opportunities offered by the institution runs a full gambit, ranging from work certificate training to enrollment in four-year degree programs. Moreover, rather than having to wait to enter the job market until after release, SCDC inmates have ample opportunities for employment during their tenure at correctional facilities across the state.
One such employment opportunity in Columbia is the SCDC Industries Frame Shop. With stores and showrooms located within Broad River Correctional Institution’s campus as well as conveniently on Main Street, the shop offers custom framing for prints, diplomas, memorabilia, and just about anything else one might care to have framed. Staffed entirely by SCDC employees and inmates, the shop produces display-worthy framed wares fit for the governor’s office.
At any given time, the frame shop employs around five inmates, each working with the utmost precision to turn photographs, precious pieces of paper, and family heirlooms into works of art. Inmates working at the frame shop learn everything from tricks of the trade to customer relations, all of which contribute to their marketability and ability to successfully reenter the workforce upon release.
In the meantime, employed inmates are able to apply earned wages to victims and victims’ programs, costs of room and board, restitution, and child support payments. In fiscal year 2021, these payments amounted to upwards of $2.5 million. Ultimately, Chrysti says, the opportunities that the SCDC Industries Frame Shop and other Division of Industries work programs have created benefit not only for inmates and their families but the state of South Carolina. Chrysti says of South Carolina’s accomplishment of achieving the lowest recidivism rate, “It’s a direct cause and effect of how the department is preparing people but also of how the community is helping people succeed.”
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Community also plays a significant role in SCDC’s partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a national organization founded in 1983 to rescue, retire, and rehabilitate former racehorses. Since its establishment, the organization has formed niche partnerships with correctional institutions across the country to offer vocational training programs in equine care and upkeep in exchange for the use of land and farm hands.
In 2004, the foundation opened its newest set of barn doors on the property of Wateree River Correctional Institution in Rembert, South Carolina. John Carmichael, who was at the time the recently retired warden of WRCI, and a cohort including Kip Elser of Kirkwood Stables in Camden, South Carolina, spearheaded the effort. “We had a huge groundswell of support first from within the community and then really from all around the country as we worked to bring TRF to Wateree Correctional,” Kips says. “It is a great public-private cooperation, and it is a really good cause. It’s been successful.”
In addition to contributing to the reduced rate of recidivism within the state, the success of this partnership can also be measured by the joy, gratification, and sense of connection it brings to both man and horse. As Kip puts it, “It’s a matter of trust building on both sides.” Inmates participating in the Groom Elite program through TRF cannot help but become connected to the animals they groom, feed, and study, and whose paths — once bleak and threatened by the potential of abuse and neglect — are often strikingly parallel to those of their caretakers.
For the horses, rehabilitation is quite literal: their muscular bodies are worn down after years of racing, and a heavy dose of tender, loving care is precisely the prescription they need. For the inmates, rehabilitation addresses the needs of the mind and spirit. Kip says, “It’s horses helping men, and men helping horses.”
Kairos Prison Ministries
Volunteers from organizations such as Kairos Prison Ministries also help to address the spiritual needs of the imprisoned population. Kairos is a nondenominational Christian-based ministry comprised almost exclusively of volunteers who enter into prison environments to offer ongoing relational support and guidance to inmates. By exposing inmates to the love of Christ, modeling Christian behavior, and introducing them to methods by which they can attempt to achieve both short- and long-term goals, Kairos aims to build disciples of Christ.
At Broad River Correctional Institution, a level three maximum security prison with roughly 1,200 inmates, the Kairos team consists of about 50 volunteers, most of whom are lay people, with a few clergy scattered in the mix.
Arthur De Gennaro, the organization’s Advisory Council chair for BRCI, explains, “The chaplain of the institution chooses inmates whom he believes are influencers of other inmates or who could be influencers of other inmates and invites them to participate in a four-day walk, or four-day weekend.”
This weekend experience is structured after the Cursillo Movement, from which the Kairos ministry model originated in the 1970s. The word “cursillo,” Spanish for “short course,” describes a method used by a Spanish priest in the 1940s to uplift and energize lay leaders in the church. It has since been adopted by many groups, including the founders of “Cursillo in Prison,” which later became Kairos Prison Ministry International. The Greek term “kairos” roughly translates to “in God’s time.”
Despite the name change, the sentiment and structure have remained largely the same over the course of the past four decades and counting. During the four-day weekend, inmates and volunteers are divided into groups with whom they eat, share fellowship, and listen to a series of lectures presented by the Kairos team. Arthur says the feedback he has received from participants is always positive. “The vast majority of inmates look at their Kairos weekend as a pivotal moment in their life. They see this as an emotional and spiritual high point that they never forget.”
Prison Fellowship, a worldwide organization with volunteers serving in several facilities in the state, is another Chrisitian-based prison ministry at work in the Midlands. The organization’s approach to rehabilitation and restoration entails offering support to inmates and their families, encouraging advocacy for justice reform, spearheading initiatives to promote increased opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and providing a leadership course for prison wardens.
James Murray, a Lexington resident and Prison Fellowship’s field director for the Carolinas, says, “I am the epitome of prison ministry.” His involvement with Prison Fellowship began several decades back, when he was serving a nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.
“Just literally the day before I went to court, I made a commitment to give my life to Jesus Christ.” In light of this, he decided that first and foremost he needed to take responsibility for his actions. It did not take him long to cross paths with Prison Fellowship volunteers, in whom he found support and encouragement as he set out on his journey to make good on this commitment.
While many volunteer groups engage in prison ministries, he was particularly drawn to those from Prison Fellowship. He recalls that the most compelling attribute of this group of volunteers was their faithfulness. Volunteering at a prison, he says, is anything but incidental: “It has to be intentional; you don’t just drive by.”
Week after week, Prison Fellowship volunteers reliably showed up with a warm, inviting nature about them, drawing him into their fold through good old-fashioned hospitality. He says, “They made me feel that I was worth something, that I was valued, even though I didn’t feel so valuable myself.” James participated in weekly Bible studies, or “Connection Classes,” and weekend seminars, consisting of a three-day discipleship series. Eventually, he says, “I made a commitment that I wanted to be like these people not knowing that God would give me a career in this.”
Today, of the nearly 30 years that James has been out of prison, he has spent 26 of them working for Prison Fellowship in various capacities. The organization has grown significantly since his time as a participant. Two of its most prominent in-prison programs, Prison Fellowship Academy and the Prison Fellowship Hope Event, were added to the catalog in the years since his release. Prison Fellowship Academy is a rigorous 12-month program with 200 hours of curriculum that focuses on helping participants better understand the challenges they brought with them into incarceration.
One of the main goals of this program, James explains, is that inmates experience reconciliation with themselves, God, their family, and community. The Hope Event, Prison Fellowship’s other major in-prison program, is a lively evangelistic concert traditionally conducted within the prison and intended to encourage inmates through live music, comedy, dance, and often a high-profile speaker.
For those who are considering volunteering with prison ministries, Beaver Hardy’s advice is simple: “Do it. By all means, do it.” Beaver is a longtime volunteer with both Prison Fellowship and Kairos Prison Ministry, among others. More than a decade ago, a visit to Manning Correctional Institution for a Prison Fellowship event piqued his interest, and within a matter of weeks he was on the planning committee for the next event.
“One thing that struck me from the first meeting is that if you’re not in prison, you’re lucky,” Beaver says. “Everybody has done something in their life that would put them in prison if they were caught.” This assessment has become a humbling, resounding reminder of perspective that not only motivates Beaver to continue in the field of prison ministry but also humanizes those who are imprisoned and often unfairly characterized.
Beaver, James, Arthur, Kip, Chrysti, and the organizations they represent reflect a sample of individuals and groups who have played a part in the effort to rehabilitate inmates. While their methods of rehabilitation may vary, the common goal remains the same: equip incarcerated individuals with the social, emotional, spiritual, and educational tools they need to succeed and in turn help communities to thrive.