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The Cost of Reentry

Written by : William Patrick Henry

I have 2 years left on my sentence here at Kershaw Correctional Institution, and I'm looking forward to being a free man. I received a seven-year nonviolent sentence in 2020, and most of it has been served in a dorm we call Heavy Metal. Being in prison behind locked doors and fences is a constant physical and psychological battle. The main objectives we strive to achieve back here are staying alive, maintaining sanity, and regaining our freedom. Personally, I've lost so much during my incarceration that these objectives have been even harder to maintain than I expected. It's definitely a full-time job.

Palmetto dorm is packed with men who are all striving to achieve these three objectives, simultaneously. Although there are a select few who will never regain their freedom due to life sentences, we are a community striving to make it home in the same condition as we came in, or possibly better. However, one fight we cannot win is against time. It waits for no man, and it's impossible to speed up. As you get closer to the end of your sentence, time seems to drag, and anticipation and anxiety increase to the point where you become extra sensitive to every minute and every second. Time is what it took for me to get acclimated to my environment and find my place in this community. Then the day came where everything changed. I was scheduled to be rehoused in a new dorm called Sycamore and placed in a "Re-entry" program. I was caught off guard and uprooted against my will because it was mandated by prison operations at headquarters. So, like anything that's forced upon a person, I built up a resistance to change. I was serving my time and fulfilling my obligation to society. Why punish me further? My body and soul were against it. I felt like I was comfortable where I was, and I didn't need a program to help me re-enter society. All I needed was for the doors to be unlocked and the gates to be opened.

After arriving in Sycamore and going through orientation for the program, I was given an overall explanation of what it was designed for: to help men who were deemed at risk of returning to prison upon release. I've had a few stints myself, what's called a "skid bid." I was intrigued to see if this system would be beneficial. Over time, the resistance I built up eventually turned into disgust and despair. The classes were being taught by inmates, and we had no interaction with the outside world, the world we were preparing to enter.

There are actually a great number of intelligent men in prison. But to put a man who has been locked up for over 30 years in charge of a financial literacy class was a joke to me. The Department of Corrections has been paying these guys' bills for almost their entire lives. How could he explain finances to me? I've been to college and have had to support a wife and family on the outside. No amount of book knowledge or curriculum can overshadow first-hand experience.

The biggest discrepancy was that many of us, including myself, received disciplinary sanctions for missing a class or two. These sanctions involved a loss of good time, as punishment for failing to earn good time. Now, I'm not the smartest man alive, but extending my prison sentence for failing to participate in a program designed to help me go home and stay out of prison is an oxymoron. It was extreme and felt like moving backwards, not to mention discriminatory and unconstitutional, because not every inmate on the verge of release is forced to be in this program. Keeping me in prison any longer than necessary is a violation of my liberties, interests, and pursuit of freedom.

It didn't take long for the department heads overseeing the program at Kershaw to see that the system was flawed. The families of these guys were becoming more and more critical as well. The state prison industry is in desperate need of the extra money they receive from taxpayers for implementing this program. Instead of terminating it, they decided to transfer us to a prison with more benefits and restructure the overall design of the program. For me, this was a major step in the right direction.

We were transferred to Tyger River Correctional Facility, which would put me much closer to home. We would have outside teachers conducting the classes, and the program now offered incentives that would help us upon release, such as job opportunities, housing, and advancement in education. All that was needed now was for the state to follow through with the options they claim were available. So, I made the transition with a positive outlook and attitude. I was reinvigorated by the changes and felt confident that I could make the most of it.

At Kershaw, we were locked in our rooms for half the day, every single day, and barely had any outdoor recreation due to the shortage of staff. However, at Tiger River, the doors are never locked, and outdoor recreation is provided every day on a strict schedule. These differences alone made serving time easier and improved our overall disposition. Or so I thought, until the night everything changed.

I was sitting on my bed, looking at my tablet in the dark, when suddenly a man attacked me. He hit me several times, and because I was in a sitting position and the beds are just a foot off the ground, it took me a second to fight back and stand up. When I finally did, I punched him in the jaw, and he ran out of the room. I started to chase after him but stopped when I realized something was wrong. I felt wet in various places and noticed blood on my fingers when I touched those areas.

That's when it hit me – I had been stabbed multiple times and was bleeding profusely. My first thought was how to protect myself, and my second thought was how badly I was hurt. The assailant made no further attempt to attack, standing in the doorway of the unit, his eyes wide and glossed over. He seemed deranged, possessed by something evil.

I hurried to a room of someone I knew, and while doing so, blood started squirting from a wound in my side. I was in much worse shape than I had initially thought. Blood was pouring from the top of my head down to my neck. All those times I thought he was hitting me with his fist in the dark, he was actually stabbing me repeatedly. Panic set in as I knocked on a friend’s door to get his attention.

There was no officer stationed in the building and no cameras, I had no way of getting the attention of staff on the yard. Just when the community of guys in the dorm started to awaken, a few officers coincidentally walked into our building. I silently thanked the Most High and praised him. The guy who had stabbed me ran out as soon as the doors were unlocked, as if he feared retaliation.

After he was escorted out, the officers examined me with flashlights, and we followed the others at a distance. I had to constantly apply pressure on a particularly deep wound between my rib cage, which I mentioned earlier. This wound had painted the walls and floor of the dorm, as well as the walkway we took to get to operations, with burgundy red. I was then escorted to the hospital, where it was determined that I had been stabbed 10 times: once in the top of the head, twice in the left hand, three times in the left arm, and four times in the back. I received six staples for my head wound and stitches for the other injuries. I was immediately discharged within a few hours and brought back to the prison, where I spent the next 10 days in lockup.

Now, as I sit and reflect on this brief, yet intense period of incarceration, I can see how I ended up in this situation. First of all, the selection process for individuals placed in this program is flawed. It's both a gift and a curse. Some of the guys are classified as violent, while others are deemed nonviolent. The ones considered violent are labeled as "not that violent," and the ones considered nonviolent are categorized as "not that innocent." They try to establish a middle ground where, in reality, none exists. The one common factor we all share is our lengthy periods of incarceration. Whether we've been in and out or have served long stretches, what we also have in common is being seen as lost causes. A majority of individuals who have spent a significant amount of time incarcerated, eventually struggle with some form of mental health issue, while those who go back and forth to prison often deal with substance abuse problems. The numbers don't lie, and this unstable environment creates challenges for those who don't have issues with either of these problems. The state forces us to coexist with a group that we feel alienated from or simply refuse to associate with. Not having a choice of like-minded individuals we can relate to, is a very lonely and torturous experience.

The person who stabbed me was using meth, K2, and fentanyl, which fueled his violent behavior. Moreover, he suffered from mental health issues such as PTSD, paranoia, and hyperactivity disorder, all of which were exacerbated by drug use. This was a guy I treated like a little brother. I always encouraged him to pray, set goals for his release, and most importantly, to stay clean. I even collaborated with him on songwriting projects, as he was a talented songwriter, and I urged him not to give up on his dreams. Whenever I cooked and had a meal, I would always share half of it with him. He was bright, charismatic, talented, and seemingly fearless. I saw traces of myself in him, as I mentioned before, he was like a little brother to me.

However, after I recovered from my injuries, I spoke to someone who had known him much longer than I had. It was then that I learned the reason why he was in prison to begin with. He had been up all night, high on drugs, and got into a heated argument with his own blood brother, which resulted in him stabbing him.

Now, after reading my story what do you think should be done to ensure a safer environment for this program? Do you feel that there should be a better screening process for participants? How can SCDC improve supervision and program management without creating a situation of hostility from non compliant participants? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Thank you.

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