Wednesday, March 6, 2019
USCB Hilton Head, Room 103
Neil Funnell introduced the speakers and identified ethical issues in society’s prisons such as solitary confinement, male-on-male rape, cell phone access and the educational system for inmates.
Presenters: 1) John Pate, who grew up in South Carolina, retired from the U.S. Army, then retired as warden of the Allendale Correctional Institution in Fairfax, SC; 2) Ron Clifford, who grew up in Houston, retired pharmacist, leader of local nonprofit organizations, chairman of the county board of registration and elections, volunteer with Kairos Prison Ministry since 2004; 3) Tom Conner, retired educator with 54 years of experience including 24 years of administration and university-level teaching. All are experienced volunteers in the Allendale prison.
John had worked as a second career in the Allendale prison for 19 years when he became warden in 2010 and said to himself, “It is not ethical to warehouse these men and not do anything to improve their character. Character matters.” In addition, he noted that 98% of inmates return to their home communities when released. He rationalized that whatever he could do to improve their chances of succeeding outside of prison would be worthwhile.
Without any funding from the state, he recruited volunteers and donations to begin and expand a character-building program. Churches, nonprofit organizations and schools contributed. The inmates responded to the attention and began to design and eventually take over the curriculum and the schedule based on the needs and opportunities they could identify. When the students became the teachers, they were called “facilitators.” The inmates are people, he said, who made bad choices, but when the question is, “How smart are you?” the answer is, “You are smart enough.”
Since retiring in 2018, John has returned to the S.C. Department of Corrections to expand the volunteer- driven program to other prisons. He called supervising the volunteers “the most rewarding work I have ever done.”
Ron described an ecumenical program called Kairos as “God’s special time,” offered in seminars over four 12-hour-days to let inmates know they are not alone, they have choices for the future, they can accept themselves and learn to forgive. The idea, he said, is to give “hope and love” to the inmates and to help them get over notions of revenge. The settings do not look like churches. The program includes home-cooked meals and lots of cookies for nibbling throughout the four days. It includes small-group discussions to encourage the inmates to talk to one another about their families and their hometowns as well as their jobs in prison.
Nationwide, the Kairos organization promotes the idea that recidivism drops from 60% for the overall prison population to 10% for those completing the Kairos program.
Tom Conner described his volunteer time in the prison “an amazing experience,” saying he had been privileged to work with a fighter pilot and an industrial psychologist, among other volunteers, and that he learned that the inmates have variable and multiple talents. Some are thinkers, some planners, some gatherers, some with surprising amounts of common sense, he said. He used his professional skills to teach the volunteers in a 60-hour course to become teachers.
One inmate, Tom said, had been in prison 22 years before he was able to write a request. Through the literacy training of volunteers he was able to do that and felt much gratitude. Another inmate began to organize study groups, and the concept has been well-received and effective, Tom said.
From the audience:
*What kinds of crimes have the Allendale inmates committed, and what is the level of security at Allendale? Volunteers do not inquire about the crimes. The Allendale prison is a Level II, which is moderate security.
*“Men in Transition” and “Fresh Start” are additional programs offered 3 to 9 months before inmates are released to solve paper work issues such as drivers’ licenses.
*Is it true that most inmates have suffered from alcohol or drug addiction before landing in prison? Yes, 80-85 percent were addicted before committing the crimes. And no, the state does not have enough addiction recovery programs.
*My impression is what you are doing is not popular with the SC Department of Corrections. That has been a challenge because corrections officers in general do not like change. However, after retiring as warden, John said, the department called him back as a volunteer to begin spreading the Allendale programs to other prisons.
Our sincere thanks to John, Rod and Tom for their outstanding, deeply moving and informative presentations regarding our SC Prison system and the Kairos program. Thanks also to Neil Funnell for Moderating and to Fran Bollin for providing us with this excellent summary.