- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) - Cary Sanders vividly remembers his time in solitary confinement.

The 29-year-old was sent to prison at 17 after being convicted of trying to kill someone during an armed robbery. Sanders was put into isolation at the Department of Juvenile Justice before transferring to the South Carolina Department of Corrections to serve out nine years.

His experience is a snapshot of what state convicts go through daily when they are placed in restrictive housing units, more commonly known as lock-up.

Twenty-three hours a day, the inmates are locked in their cells. They have just an hour of outside time - on a clear day - and even then they stay in a single recreation yard. Interaction with others is sparse.

“It gave you an opportunity to reflect on life. Were you really an animal that needed to be in a cage?” said Sanders, who is now the inside program director for Jump Start, a faith-based rehabilitation program in Spartanburg that helps inmates reintegrate back into society. “It’s a mental attack. . You doubt yourself as a human being when you’re treated in that manner.”

About 715 prisoners statewide are now in lock-up, compared with 1,615 in 2014. The trend is the result of efforts by the state Corrections Department to limit the use of solitary confinement.

President Barack Obama issued an executive action in January calling on federal penitentiaries to avoid using solitary confinement on juveniles and those convicted of low-level offenses. He urged state facilities to follow suit.

But the prison system in South Carolina had already taken action, said state Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling.

State prisons are beginning to see the effects of the Step Down program, which allows inmates to gradually reintegrate back into the prison’s general population. It’s a way to better prepare inmates for when they’re eventually released back into society. Working harder to move inmates out of solitary helps reduce the number of convicts in isolation.

“When they’re incarcerated we like to get them in services, get their high school diploma or GED and get them (job skills), so when they get out they can make proper choices and not come back,” Stirling said. “When they’re in a lock-up facility, that just can’t happen.”

Step Down began at McCormick Correctional Institution in McCormick in June 2015 as a way to allow offenders in lock-up to interact with others again. By March, the program was expanded to 17 out of the state prison system’s 26 facilities.

There’s no average length of time spent in lock-up since it varies by offender. Inmates in solitary are evaluated monthly. Some are put in lock-up for a 60-day disciplinary period, but Step Down focuses more on those who are there for longer periods and have been considered threats to safety previously, said Stephanie Givens, a corrections department spokeswoman. Before Step Down, inmates in lock-up would either stay there or go directly back into the prison’s general population.

“People need to get out of lock-up. When they’re in solitary, you can’t just let them into the yard after having been in lock-up for so long. They don’t know how to socialize. It could be a very dangerous thing,” Stirling said.

Reductions have been reported systemwide, according to data obtained from the Corrections Department.

Tyger River Correctional Institution, a medium security prison in Spartanburg County, had just 62 inmates in solitary confinement as of March 4, down from 105 inmates in 2014. Tyger River houses about 1,200 inmates, part of the 21,000 total inmates in state prison facilities.

Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville has seen the largest reduction, with 238 inmates in lock-up in 2014 compared with 58 this month. Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer went from having 157 inmates in restrictive housing in 2014 down to 84.

A few facilities have seen slight increases. Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia had 27 inmates in lock-up in 2014, and there are now 52.

Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have condemned the use of solitary confinement, citing detrimental effects on a person’s ability to function in society.

Susan Dunn, the ACLU of South Carolina’s legal director, said solitary confinement is not an appropriate long-term punishment, especially if offenders are supposed to come out of prison able to re-assimilate into the community.

“It has no rehabilitative usefulness,” she said. “By definition, solitary in prisons is not done therapeutically.”

But the state’s Step Down program is a step in the right direction, she said.

Stirling said he understands the implications of lock-up.

“Obviously, it’s been well talked about in media. The psychological effects are there on these folks in the facility,” he said.

Corrections Department officials declined a Herald-Journal request to photograph a state restrictive housing unit.

Moving inmates out of solitary has freed up cells in those units, making them more readily available for those who need to be there, Stirling said. Tyger River’s restrictive housing unit currently is about 73 percent occupied, for example.

Inmates tend to behave better when they know that if they do something wrong, they could end up in lock-up immediately, Stirling said.

“Some folks were not faced with immediate repercussions for their actions when lock-up was overfilled,” he said. “Now, they know if they do something that’s a level one offense, they’re going immediately.”


Information from: Herald-Journal, https://www.goupstate.com/

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