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Applying Skill Sets in Prison

Written by: Terrence Hunt


Months after graduating from Columbia International University’s associate degree program at Kirkland Correctional Institution, John S. and I were transferred to Perry Correctional Institution in January 2009 to use our skill set to have a positive impact on the prison population.

The Chaplain and Associate Warden explained that they were unsure how to utilize our skill sets. “This program is so new, and Headquarters gave us no instructions or vision for this…,” said the Chaplain. “You guys are going to have to make your own way”, said the Associate Warden. Their feedback shocked me but pointed me toward praying that God gives me His instructions and vision for how to best serve the needs of the men.

In the meantime, John S. and I built relationships with the men we had access to and participated in programs we felt drawn to, such as protestant worship service, Kairos, and Celebrate Recovery. Within the first six months, I met John Tinsley, we became close friends, then he introduced me to Joel Carter and two Muslim men, Nadir (Robert Johnson) and Kareem (Antoinne Paden). These men developed a reputation for being the motivation for moral excellence among their sphere of influence. Although we had differing religious beliefs, our common core convictions for redemption unified us.

Before the end of that year, I was invited to a think-tank group entitled Socratic Society. The group was led by John Tinsley, Kareem, and Nadir, who were self-taught educators. Someone within the group would submit a past or recent societal crisis, then we would discuss the potential causes, solutions, and lessons learned that could be applied to our gated community within the barbed wire fences. In addition to pursuing moral excellence, this was a group of problem-solvers as each week we reviewed topics from a philosophical angle and concluded with practical applications.

One week John Tinsley posed the question, “how can we change the prison culture for the good? We gather each week and experience inspiration, comradery, and encouragement in our small circle of community, how can we use it to influence the larger culture, or is it even possible?” From that moment we began using Socratic Society to develop Cultural Engagement projects.

The Cultural Engagement initiative was designed to change the culture for the good by “meeting people where they are.” Phase I entailed utilizing existing programs and creating a few new programs to build the type of bonds that brought out the best in us through accountability, support, and encouragement. For instance, Nadir and I created Hip-Hop Workshop as a tool to attract the younger demographic of the population and coach them to use their lyrical talent to create positive music which we performed at events. Kareem created a mentor program called Man-to-Man. Between the six of us, we were involved in over a dozen programs.

At its core, we used healthy relationships to motivate personal development. A person cared about himself more so when someone else took the initiative to care about him, then we would challenge one another about our relapses, failures, excuses and room for improvement. The Warden came to John Tinsley and I, stating that he is seeing positive changes among the population and to keep us the good work. Each day I woke up, I looked forward to spending time with all these brothers, we were like one big family.

When we were not in a program, Nadir, John Tinsley, and I used the computer lab in the education building to develop proposals for Phase II.

Winter of 2009, John S., Nadir, Joel Carter, Kareem and I conducted a presentation for the Warden, Associate Warden, and Chaplain. We explained the success of Phase I, then I had the privilege of using my stats and charts to propose why Phase II would be successful if he approved it. At the end of the presentation he said, “y’all came up with all this on your own?” The group responded with a resounding, “Yes.” The Warden approved our expansion to create more programs to reach all the population, but he conveyed that he had to ponder approving of having a 24-hour rehabilitative living unit. He asked, “how do you know that this will work?” I said, because we have already been doing it for months on a smaller scale within the weekly two programs. The Wardens last words were, “I will think about it.”

April 9th, 2010, the first Character Based Unit was born. The Chaplain and Associate Warden provided day-to-day support and we all functioned as a team. Nadir, John S., Joel Carter, Kareem and I were the C.B.U. coordinators, tasked with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the program. We were responsible for developing the guiding philosophy, community structure, and program scheduling that served the personal development needs of 96 men. The governing philosophies of the C.B.U. came from the results of our shared experience of Phase I. The accountability aspect of relationship building became the model and basis for selecting the designation, Peer-to Peer. This model was also used to help condition and sensitize us to routinely consider how our actions could affect others, instead of our former self-centered thinking that says, “I will satisfy my needs and wants at the expense of my well being and the well being of others.”

The program dorm was fully furnished with a library, chairs, desks, computer station, plants, educational posters, projectors and dry erase boards. All those materials were donated by our family members, churches, civilian prison volunteers, and some correctional staff. This took a lot to create and even more to sustain.

By 2011 the program expanded to a full dorm of 182 participants, therapy dogs, and civilian volunteers teaching classes. The program’s purpose is to eliminate the inconsistent availability of programs and to counter the overwhelming majority of the destructive culture that a person would contend with in the living unit. Wardens from various correctional facilities began to visit the program and had us train inmate leaders how to implement, manage, and continuously enhance a Character Based Unit.

Today, May 2023, I find myself alongside Nadir once again to facilitate a two-hour mentoring program every Tuesday. Our hope and goal is to convert this program to a 24 hour living unit program, but we are missing the type of chaplain, Associate Warden, and Warden to do it. However, our ultimate hope is to be granted a second change into society (before the end of our max-out dates) to implement these initiatives in our communities.


Please view our first C.B.U. web page at WWW.DOC.SC.GOV/Institutions/Perry/CBU.PDF


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