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SOUTH CAROLINA’S STANCE ON SECOND CHANCES: DENIED!!!

Imagine the worst night of your life leading to a conviction when you were just 18 years old. It has been 30 years since the judge slammed his gavel, sealing your fate as the courtroom looked at you with condemnation. You entered the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) young and confused, but somehow, you managed to avoid any disciplinary actions. Now, you serve as a mentor to younger inmates, living in a character-based unit at one of the state’s six Level 3 prisons.


The night before your parole hearing, you toss and turn, unable to sleep as you think about the possibility of freedom. It’s Wednesday morning, and your parole hearing is set for 9:00 AM. This is your 10th time seeking parole. You try not to get too hopeful, aware of the repeated disappointments you’ve faced. Yet, how can you not be excited about the prospect of freedom?


You walk into a room with TV screens. On one screen, you see the parole board: on the other, your family. The board asks you a few questions, all of which your lawyer has prepared you for. You explain that you plan to move to the Jumpstart House and work until you can no longer do so. Your lawyer speaks on your behalf, advocating for your release. In just 15 short minutes, the hearing is over, and you sit, nervously waiting.


The decision is unanimous. Due to the nature and seriousness of your crime, the board decides to deny your parole. The hope that briefly fluttered in your chest is extinguished, replaced by a familiar, crushing despair.


This may seem like a tragic story, or you may think, he’s a criminal, let him rot in prison. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of forgiveness, this is a very real scenario that happens on any given Wednesday in South Carolina prisons. This isn’t just one man’s story; there are many who share this narrative. The South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services (SCDPPPS) turns down parole regularly. In an article in the Post and Courier, they reported that the release rate has dropped to just 7 percent in the last fiscal year and no one serving a life-with-parole sentence was released.


The parole board consists of seven members who have been appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. The Penology and Corrections Committee actually approves the members. I recently watched the process as Geraldine Miro was added to the board. According to Salary.com, parole board members are paid an average salary of approximately $92,722. Governor Henry McMaster, a Republican who in 2016 proposed abolishing parole when he was attorney general, is in charge of appointing the board’s seven members, pending Senate approval, and can remove them at his discretion. Under his tenure, the members he’s put in place have operated a system that places an emphasis on past crimes rather than rehabilitative efforts, according to an article published by Bolts.

The board has very little oversight, and the fact that parole is considered a privilege and not a right gives them all the permission they need to provide no explanation for their decisions. Bolts claims that they even refuse to answer questions by the media. The parole board has recently been criticized for being a rubber stamp process.


Upon interviews with men and women who have undergone the process, they all say they are turned down for the same reason: the nature and seriousness of their crime. Although the criteria set out by SCDPPPS lists 15 other factors, this one seems to be the reason they always use to say DENIED! It is also the only thing on the list that no one on earth has the power to change.


One of their leading critics, Jon Ozmint, an attorney and former SCDC director and former prosecutor, has taken up the fight to get long-term prisoners' home to their families. His efforts have been highlighted in the Post and Courier. “Unfortunately, even as South Carolina taxpayers continue to fund our parole agency, that agency has effectively nullified state law, eliminating parole and negatively impacting public safety,” he states in his commentary on the parole system.

In a support group for prisoners on Facebook, when asked to comment on the parole process, family members of prisoners expressed concern that there is no clear-cut process to release. “Upon watching other inmates go up, my LO (loved one) and I noticed it’s a shot in the dark unfortunately no matter the circumstances,” one commenter stated.


“My uncle goes up every two years only to be turned down in a matter of minutes. Family along with the community write letters to support his release. We have housing and a job lined up. We’ve even hired attorneys."

The students of a writing class at Ridgeland Correctional express their experiences with parole in a powerful anthology co-authored and edited by Jodie Randisi. “I’ve been in prison for murder for 27 years. I’ve never gotten in a fight or been a part of any violent activity. My current mindset is just one example of the many keys that need to be found and planted back into society,” says Kevin S. “Someone once said the nature of the crime will never change, only the person who committed it will, and that I believe is a fact. Prisoners can change during incarceration, but who’s paying attention?” Tyrone C. asks. “If America is the land of second chances, then the gates need to be open for the fathers of wisdom who have been forgotten behind prison walls,” Tyrone G. writes.


With all of that being said, the question arises: What can be done? This is an issue of compassion and forgiveness. As long as we have politicians, law enforcement leaders, and the media pushing a “tough on crime” narrative, it will be hard to find forgiveness in South Carolina.


First, we need to explore the issues and the possibilities of change. What are other states doing? What is working? What has worked in the past, and why don’t we do that anymore?


Second, we need to be committed to finding solutions. This will take getting involved in the process. Organizations, communities, and churches should use the platforms they have to get their groups involved. Organizations like Time Served and SC4 Restorative Justice have already committed to this cause and need the support of the community


Third, we need politicians who are receptive to positive change instead of being stuck in outdated mindsets. This takes knowing who is running for office and voting for those who share your concerns. This could also mean running for office if you can be the change.


Fourth, we need to listen to the men and women in prison. Allow those who are most affected by the circumstances to have a voice in the matter. No one thinks about these issues more than they do.

Lastly, be creative, resourceful, and consistent. Some of these answers will come from you or someone else that you introduce to the problems we face. This is a problem that affects all South Carolinians. Keep your ears and eyes open for ways to create change. When you see opportunities, act on them.


The story of those languishing in South Carolina’s prisons is not just a tale of crime and punishment but one of lost potential and unrealized redemption. To turn the tide, we must adopt a compassionate approach, informed by the experiences of other states, and driven by the voices of those most affected. It is a call to action for communities, organizations, and individuals to rally for change, to vote for forward-thinking leaders, and to never lose sight of the humanity that exists behind prison walls. Only then can we hope to transform our justice system into one that truly believes in second chances.


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