History of the South Carolina Department of Corrections

Following the American Revolution in 1776 crime was a concern for residents of South Carolina. Those who committed murder were punished by swift hanging and crimes of lesser nature where condemned to being tarred and feathered. During the first half of the 19th century the judicial system improved, but those who broke the law were sentenced to inadequate county jails.

In 1866 the South Carolina General Assembly recognized the unsuitable conditions that existed in the county run jails. Control of convicted and sentenced felons was transferred to the state, and the State Penitentiary was established that same year. The legislature initially appropriated $20,000 for its construction and later appropriated an additional $45,000. The first inmates entered the state penitentiary on April 18, 1867.

The assembly abolished inhumane treatment of prisoners such as "tying up by the thumbs", "the spread eagle" and flogging. Public hangings in the county town square were abolished in 1878 and by the 1900ís prison administrators had managed to enact reforms. Inmates could not be punished without permission from the captain of the guard and they no longer took baths in tubs where the water was not changed until all had finished.  Women continued to be housed in the same facility as the men until 1937 when construction began on the womenís penitentiary that is now Stevenson Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison for males.

South Carolina experimented with various corrections programs from the time the penitentiary was built. Work was considered to be beneficial to keep the inmates busy and give them a trade. In the 1900ís the 46 counties throughout the state faced a need for labor to build and maintain roads. The General Assembly frequently passed laws to accommodate the counties, and county supervisors had full authority to choose either to retain convicts for road construction or to transfer them to the state.

By 1930, the local prison system, or what is more commonly known as the "chain gang," was working throughout the state along with the state system. About 30 years later, abuses of the system, particularly the use of convict labor on private property as a form of political reward, prompted Governor Ernest "Fritz" Hollings to call for the creation of a state agency to try to ensure that all prisoners were treated equally and fairly.

The General Assembly of 1960 established the South Carolina Department of Corrections and its governing Board of Corrections members. Wyndham M. Manning became the first director of the Department of Corrections on October 5, 1960.  In 1962 Ellis MacDougall was hired as commissioner. One of his first acts was to take the chains and stripes off inmates. He established schools for inmates and began a training program for guards, whose titles then changed to correctional officers. Early in 1965 a camp for youthful offenders was opened in Ridgeville. The MacDougall Correctional Institution is still operational but its mission is no longer the housing of youthful offenders.

William D. Leeke replaced MacDougall in 1968. An adult corrections study, complete in May 1973 by the Office of Criminal Justice Programs in the governorís office examined the South Carolina corrections program. The first major step taken as a result of the study was the closure of county prison operations.   Legislation in 1974 gave the state jurisdiction over all adult offenders with sentences exceeding 90 days and counties were required to transfer any such prisoners in their facilities to the state for custody. Along with the prisoners, some county prison facilities were transferred to the state; however, many of these proved unsatisfactory for long-term use.

Assumption of the custodial responsibility for county prisoners and the closing of many local prisons' systems worsened the overcrowded conditions in state facilities. Fiscal year 1974-75 was a key period. When it ended, there was a 53 percent increase in the number of prisoners held in state institutions (5,658 up from 3,693 at the end of June 1974).  Insufficient bed spaces to accommodate the incarcerated population became a constant problem for the Department of Corrections, and, in effect, for the state of South Carolina. In January 1985, the state settled a lawsuit brought by former inmate Gary Nelson against unsafe and overcrowded conditions. Under the terms of the negotiated agreement, the Department of Corrections would reduce overcrowding, increase its staff and their training, and make other improvements.

Several early-release programs were developed in the late Ď70s and Ď80s to reduce the prison overcrowding problem. An extended work release program authorized by the legislature in 1977 allowed qualified offenders to live and work in the community under intensive supervision during the final phase of their sentences. A year later, the Litter Control Act established an earned work credit program as a means of reducing the amount of time to be served by inmates engaged in productive work while in prison. In 1980, two "good-time" measures were consolidated and additional time off a sentence was allowed for inmates with clean disciplinary records.

The 1980s also brought increased public concern for the rights of victims of crime. In the mid-Ď80s, the General Assembly responded by passing law that levied harsher penalties, limiting parole eligibility for repeat and violent offenders, and increasing the minimum sentence for certain crimes. Offenders convicted of burglary and murder were particularly singled out.

The 1990ís have seen some change in the security management of prisons. Inmates are now in uniform and have a grooming standard that they must adhere to. With a process called controlled movement there are no large groups of inmates congregating in the prison yard. The Department of Corrections releases nearly 11,000 inmates each year back to the community either because they have "maxed out" their sentence or they are paroled. The agency continues to focus on ways to prepare inmates for their return to society. With work programs to enhance their job skills, education to help them achieve a GED, and substance abuse programs that address the problem that many times caused them to be incarcerated, the Department of Corrections hopes to return the individual back to society better than when they arrived to prison.