Late last month, this news site received an open letter from an inmate at Kirkland Correctional Institution, a level three (maximum security) prison located outside of Columbia, South Carolina.
The inmate’s name? Benjamin Case.
We were struck by the eloquence of Case’s letter … and many of the blunt assessments he offered up regarding ongoing issues with the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC). In particular, Case summed up a common refrain we hear from inmates – that they are being treated unfairly in the aftermath of outbreaks of violence within Palmetto prisons.
Specifically, Case echoed a longstanding complaint that inmates are being penalized en masse for the bad behavior of a few bad actors.
“Seven men were killed in gang violence and everyone has been and still (are) being punished because of it,” Case wrote, referring to the deadly violence at Lee Correctional Institution back in April.
The violence at Lee – like many other deadly attacks before it – sparked a wave of statewide lockdowns at other facilities. In the past, these lockdowns have created a powder keg environment – fueling future violence.
“Multiple statewide lockdowns have been implemented … leaving thousands of inmates to sit and stew for days on end (through no fault of their own, in most cases),” we wrote last November, several months before the attack at Lee. “We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again: That’s a powder keg waiting to explode.”
It was … and it could be again.
According to Case, “morale amongst the (prison) population seems shaky right now.”
What is to be done, though? Can violence within South Carolina prisons be addressed without perpetuating a vicious cycle? And if so … how?
This news site outlined a host of reforms – many of them brutally controversial – in an expansive piece last fall. Our piece centered around the notion of separating the wheat from the chaff within prisons – determining which inmates were capable of rehabilitation and which ones were not.
And while our piece indeed addressed “sentencing reform,” it was equal part stick and carrot. For example, we have argued that certain crimes are so heinous as to warrant the reimposition of capital punishment – which has been effectively banned in South Carolina due to a lack of access to the chemicals necessary to perform lethal injections.
More on that in a moment …
Late last month – right around the time Case’s letter was making its way to us – SCDC unveiled one if its reform partnerships, the construction of a new youthful offender dorm at Lee. This facility – a project of the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice – aims to create a “participatory and restorative justice framework.”
Can such a framework achieve results in South Carolina?
According to Case, gangs thrive in Palmetto prisons because they “offer more protection to a young man walking into a hostile environment than the (prison) administration.”
“The state makes us work for free and uses us at their convenience,” he wrote.
“SCDC’s only hope is compassion,” Case continued. “Men and women that are in leadership positions need to be the people that residents trust. There are very few of these trustworthy individuals in SCDC and the inmates know who they are. We look forward to certain shifts, certain officers or to get the ear of someone who will listen and help us with our problems.”
One line in particular stood out to us from Case’s letter …
“People in prison need incentives,” he wrote. “Give us something to work for, something to achieve. If there were dorms, or even yards, that offered paid jobs, conjugal visits and street clothes; men would walk a line to get there. Many incentives can come at little or no cost to SCDC. Church services with our families, all-day recreation, open yard, visits with our children in the gym … the list could go on forever.”
He blames the loss of many of these “incentives” on former SCDC director Michael Moore, who served under governor David Beasley back in the early 1990s.
“He messed up the system,” Case claimed.
“(Moore) saw the coming train of exponentially larger prison populations, comprised of hopeless inmates, deprived of all incentive to behave, and he took bold action, implementing plans and policies that made the public, staff and inmates safer,” Ozmint wrote in a guest editorial for The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper earlier this year. “As prison populations exploded, the old practice of allowing inmates to wear civilian clothes became more dangerous, for a host of reasons. So Mr. Moore put inmates in uniforms. He implemented grooming standards for inmates, making staff, inmates and the public safer. He implemented a new and more modern system for classifying inmates, and he increased the physical security of the prisons, adding interior fencing, segregation units, razor wire and detection systems – all on a shoe-string budget.”
Case disagreed, saying “everything was taken away” under Moore, resulting in a “steady decline in morale in both staff and (prison) population.”
Case also claimed that the latest round of reforms aimed at improving prison safety – “lockdown, painted windows, taking our lockers, netting, new uniforms, shipping men to other states, cell phone jammers, drones” – were part of a “horse and pony show that is wasting our families’ money and frustrating us.”
Here is the full text of Case’s letter …
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Why should you believe Case? We aren’t necessarily suggesting that you should …
The 35-year-old Greenwood County native is a convicted murderer who is serving multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole. In August of 2006, Case walked into the Fast Cash Pawn Shop in Greenville, S.C. and brutally murdered 53-year-old Timothy Henson prior to wounding another employee and stealing more than 150 guns from the business.
Case was discovered three days later in Laurens County, S.C., and apprehended following a shootout with police. He was facing the death penalty (such as it is these days), but former S.C. thirteenth circuit solicitor Bob Ariail agreed not to pursue that sentence after Case pleaded guilty to a litany of crimes and accepted four life sentences.
Prior to embarking on his crime spree, Case had been exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder (he was actually diagnosed with this condition in 2001) and was reportedly on a waiting list to receive treatment for his drug and alcohol addiction.
Since his incarceration a decade ago, Case has been disciplined on multiple occasions for a wide range of infractions – including threatening harm to other inmates and possessing contraband (including a cell phone). His record has been clean for the last three years, however.
“I will be in prison as long as the Lord sees fit,” he wrote in his letter to us. “During that time I will be praying for the men and women in charge, regardless of their decisions.”
So … why would we turn over our microphone to a murderer? Simple. Because we believe in the marketplace of ideas. And the bottom line is Case – whatever sort of justice we would have doled out to him had it been up to us – still has a voice in that marketplace.
Do we agree with him? Not necessarily … but we do believe he offered a unique perspective on an ongoing problem that this news outlet will continue to cover in the months and years ahead.
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