A Look Inside: First offenders get a tour of Allendale prison | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | May 5, 2016 5:00 pm
Last Updated: May 4, 2016 at 1:44 pm
By GEORGE SALSBERRY
The solid steel door slammed shut and four of the five men crammed into the small room twitched.
The four, startled by the sound of metal crashing against metal, were getting their first sensation of what it is like serving time in the Allendale Correctional Institute.
The fifth man behind the closed door took the sound in stride — the slamming of a cell door has been part of his life for 26 years.
Those years behind bars are just a fraction of his sentence. He faces a total of 223 years for two murders and an armed robbery.
He has a daughter he has never seen. “They tell me I’m a grandfather,” he added.
It is likely he will never walk out of Allendale.
The startled faced forward, listening to the inmate describe what it is like to live in a room about 10×12 feet. In a cell outfitted with a narrow triple-decker bed, the commode about four feet away from where you lay your head. A box about a third the size of a foot locker holds your clothing, your personal items.
The inmate explained how the close living quarters can and does cause friction among dangerous men. One inmate suggested it’s basically a warehouse for meat.
The startled four were among the 18 residents of Colleton and the four other counties that make up the 14th Circuit Court District who were required to tour the Allendale facility as part of being considered for the solicitor’s office’s Pre-Trial Intervention program (PTI), designed to let first-time offenders see what life in prison is really like.
The inmates of Operation Behind Bars, the men who lead the tour, said PTI stands for part-time inmates. They left their rights on the other side of the prison fence. The list of don’ts is long: inmates can’t smoke, can’t swear. You have no say in when you get up, when you go to bed, when you rest, how you dress, how you spend your time.
The PTI’s were led into the large room that serves as the visitation center and told to sit. Feet flat on the floor, backs straight and hands on their knees.
Slouch, lean forward, cross your arms and you quickly heard about it. Fail to make eye contact with the person speaking, you hear about it.
Corrections Officer Crystal English — with the inmates lined up behind her — told the PTI participants to stand and state their age and criminal charge.
As each charge was stated, some of the inmates took one step back. Well before the 18th part-time inmate had spoken, the full-time inmates were standing with their backs against the wall.
English explained that the inmates took the steps back every time one of the part-time inmates said a criminal offense that they themselves had committed. She said that the inmates had run out of room.
Most of the PTI visitors were in their 20s or 30s: the youngest was 17, the oldest 71. The prisoners told the 71-year-old that any prison sentence he received would probably be a life sentence.
Later in the visit, the time came for the prisoner/tour guides to introduce themselves. Once again, no names, no hometowns. Just ages and the crimes that had landed them behind bars.
Murder and armed robbery dominated their rap sheets. All were facing long, hard sentences. None receive any special benefits for participation in Operation Behind Bars, except for the blue T-shirt they wear on tour dates.
Every other day, they wear the same tan uniform as the other approximately 1,100 inmates housed in Allendale. Their goal in participating in the program, the inmates said, was the hope that the bleak existence they have would turn someone else away from a life of crime.
After the introductions, it was time for the PTI’s to tour the facility. Allendale at first glance looks like the campus of a small college: identical brick buildings on a manicured grounds. That is if you can overlook the towering metal fence topped with razor-wire meant to keep you in. If an inmate makes it to the other side of the fence, Warden John Pate said, the guards are under orders to fire .00-buckshot at the inmate, “center mass until you stop.”
The PTI’s were told they had to walk in twos, holding hands. The hand-holding was not to emasculate them. It was for their safety. They had to keep in the center of the sidewalk, between the white lines, as they walked from building to building.
Inmates were confined to the edges of the sidewalk, on the other side of the white lines. They have just enough space to walk in single file, one line in one direction.
Don’t look into an occupied cell, the PTI’s were told. You might not like what you see. Eye contact can be a dangerous thing.
The first stop was the cafeteria. Then came the cells and the showers.
After seeing what life at Allendale was like, Pate told the PTI’s that if they found themselves sentenced to prison, they would not be sent to Allendale.
Serving your time in Allendale, he explained, is something you have to attain — it is something many of the inmates in South Carolina’s 22 other correctional facilities desire.
Allendale is the state’s only entirely character-based prison. You have to petition to serve time there, you have to prove to be a model prisoner.
Violate the rules and you run the risk of being relocated to one of the other prisons operated by the state.
Each of the 18 were first-time offenders facing a possible prison sentence for non-violent offenses. Successfully completing the diversion program — which includes the tour, community service and other mandated programs like alcohol education and staying out of trouble — means never going to trial, eventually having their arrests expunged.
Solicitor Duffie Stone, who participated in the tour, explained that every court district in the state offers the PTI program but few have a prison tour as part of the requirements.
He said the prison tour is one of the main reasons that only 14 percent of those who participate in the 14th Circuit Court District’s PTI program are arrested again.
“It is a prevention program; it is to prevent tomorrows career criminals,” Stone said. When someone fails, he takes it personally, “It bothers me.”
South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, joining Stone at Allendale, found the recidivism rate in the 14th Circuit’s Pre-trial Diversion program “phenomenal.”
Statewide the department of corrections has a 24.9 recidivism rate. The Pre-trial Intervention program, he said, “is saving taxpayers a lot of money.”
It costs an average of $20,000 a year to keep an inmate behind bars.