It was an unusual request from my wife Carol. She told me that a group of people from a Sun City Club were going to visit a prison in Allendale County. I was not particularly interested. I had done a number of arbitrations in prisons in Pennsylvania. In, at least two, it was necessary to take a tour to familiarize me with the facts of the case. It was not something that would fill in the gaps in my recreational quiver.
I had no idea about ACI (Allendate Correctional Institution). It was a complete blank made even more negative by the 1.5 hour ride that we took. Two of our friends were with us in our van. We had a bunch of time to speculate going up. We also had a bunch of time to review what we had seen. We all agreed that we had never even heard of such a place.
ACI was one of the worst prisons in the South Carolina system of corrections. There were shootings, stabbings, drugs, thievery, et al. When we pulled up to the facility, we had to go through the usual barriers of metal detectors, pat downs and such; just as you might see at an airport. We were also asked to give the guards our driver’s license in return for a badge. From that moment on, things began to become surreal.
The campus, and I do mean campus is divided into dormitories. The buildings are part of the Character Based Housing units. The brick and mortar places are places where programming begins and ends for the men who are housed there. There are 1250 men in the institution.
Each resident signs a social contract with ACI outlining how they are going to proceed. There are 3 parts to the program. The introductory course is housed in one building and lasts for one year. The curriculum teaches the men how to live in society and character building skills. Sounds like what one would want to do in any prison. However, this place works. There are even volunteers in the place who bring donations and work with the residents.
I’ll bet you are thinking that only the non-capital crimes folks toured us around. You would be wrong. Two of the men who walked around with us were murderers and have been incarcerated for 20 and 30 years. The leader of the program is someone who has been in prison for 30 years and is getting out in 8 months.
The second dormitory houses those who have any form of addictions. The third dorm was for residents who were following the program successfully. The residents of the third dorm have the ability to join many activities. Although each prisoner has a job to do, they are also involved with dog and cat grooming. They work with animals to make them service dogs. They create toys for handicapped children. They operate a Toastmaster’s club. They have a large religious component. They have 17 different religions that they accommodate. They really do need a space for that component. They are taught skills that they can use when they get out- truck driving, agriculture, computers, hydroponics, fish farming, growing ornamental plants that are used in government offices across the state. Those are just a small sample of what the inmates are doing.
There is certainly a dorm for people who are not involved in the program. The word used was uncooperative. Their time at ACI is a more traditional lockup. Not sure I would like to visit that dorm.
A peer to peer review is an integral part of the program. It is a way of keeping to the rules of the institution and the social contract. None of the residents that we talked to claimed that they were in prison wrongly. That is a common thread with those who are incarcerated.
The prisoners toured us, ate with us, and served the food. What does the program cost the taxpayer? NOTHING. It is self-sustaining. Why aren’t other prisons in South Carolina using it? I have no idea. However, I do know that leadership was the prime reason for the improvement. John Pate has been there for 5 years and began introducing reforms in the second month he was there. What about the guards. They are unobtrusive. They are certainly there to see that the rules are followed, but they hang back in their offices and are willing to talk to you about how things work. It was certainly an eye opener.


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