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Restorative Justice Program Boosts South Carolina Prison and Public Safety

by David M. Reutter

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Amy L. Solomon, Director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), and National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Director Nancy La Vigne visited South Carolina’s Turbeville Correctional Institution (TCI) in June 2023 to inspect the Community Opportunity Restoration Enhancement (CORE) unit, which was designed to provide safer and more humane conditions of confinement.

The CORE program, which started in 2018, is based on the Vera Institute of Justice’s Restoring Promise model to “connect young adults with older mentors who are serving lengthy, sometimes life sentences,” OJP said in a statement, with “workshops focused on life skills, financial planning, conflict mediation and healthy connections.”

It sounds touchy-feely, but a study showed significant reductions in violence in units where Restoring Promise was deployed, as well as greater work satisfaction for guards assigned there. Apparently prioritizing fairness, dignity and respect improves prison safety and staff work environment. NIJ and OJP are supporting jurisdictions in testing and expanding new strategies to change prison climate and culture. South Carolina has two Restoring Promise models: CORE and Helping Other People Evolve (HOPE).

Prisoner housing may be classified in one of two ways: either a warehouse, or a campus providing tools to effect personal change. The last four decades have seen justice-involved individuals simply “warehoused,” while prisons grapple with understaffing, program cuts, record numbers of geriatric prisoners and violence from those with little hope of release. Contrasted with that is evidence that “restorative justice” programs equip prisoners with a sense of purpose that increases prison and public safety.

Various programs encourage prisoners to make personal change while incarcerated. Faith and character-based programs have made major in-roads into prisons. Peer-to-peer programs are the latest rage. From this writer’s experience, the models are very similar, involving a curriculum of classes aimed at helping prisoners recognize and correct their thinking processes on issues such as substance abuse or anger. A focus of most programs is recognizing the harm caused to victims. As a facilitator, I often say, “You must change from a selfish person to an other-centered person when making decisions that impact others.”

The CORE unit at TCI has reported success with the program, which has its own housing unit that prioritizes open communication and self-correction through group engagement and one-on-one meetings.

“These guys need to be able to let loose and express themselves and their emotions,” said Matt, one of five mentors for 30 others in TCI’s CORE program. “It gives them the opportunity to be who they really are, instead of this tough guy mentality that you have to put on when you’re in prison.”

Perks come with these programs, too. In the faith-based program I completed, there were computers, DVD players to watch educational and general entertainment videos, murals and banners on the wall, bunks sectioned into pod “families” and special visitation events, such as free-world food parties. TCI’s CORE program participants reported they were also allowed perks, such as hanging pictures in their cells and a shared kitchen with a refrigerator.

According to a Vera Institute of Justice study, the atmosphere in these programs is less violent, with just “six violent convictions within a group of 100 participants randomly assigned to the unit, compared to 15 among 100 applicants randomly left in the general prison population.” TCI’s CORE program also reported less violence.

It handles discipline differently, too. Offenses like disorderly conduct and contraband possession are usually met “with writing assignments, related to the wrongdoing, public apologies to harmed individuals, or additional chores without pay.”

This writer’s one-year experience in a faith-based program saw no one get into a violent episode or receive formal disciplinary sanctions. In another program for parole-eligible lifers over a seven-year period, I rarely witnessed other prisoners fight, violate rules or be subjected to formal disciplinary action. In my time in prison and as a facilitator in a change program, I have met many men young and old who grew up without family support or guidance, learned the laws of the street to survive, and never held a job nor lived responsibly. Restorative Justice programs introduce these prisoners to what they missed growing up: love and responsible living.  


Sources: WBTW, WCBD

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