In 1995, the S.C. Department of Corrections — like many other prison systems across the country — was in the midst of record-setting growth.
The prisons were already plagued by over-crowding and aging, insufficient infrastructure when the war on drugs, mandatory minimum prison sentences, two- and three-strikes laws and the abolition of parole began packing in even more prisoners. The problem was further exacerbated by outdated and ineffective security practices that were holdovers from a time before these well-meaning but dangerous “tough on crime” laws made prisons and society less safe by stripping inmates of hope and incentive toward rehabilitation.
It was during this transition that Gov. David Beasley brought Michael Moore from the Texas prison system to run the Corrections Department. Mr. Moore, who served as director until 1999, died on Monday in his home state of Texas.
It was during my own tenure as director that I learned about the transformational period that Mr. Moore oversaw at the Corrections Department.
Change is tough, and Mr. Moore brought in a team of outsiders, many from the Texas prison system. Both inside and outside of the department, many resisted and resented his changes. In later years, when I would occasionally hear staff speaking negatively about Mr. Moore, I would interrupt. Here’s why.
Mr. Moore faced unique challenges driven by short-sighted public-policy decisions that threatened our state’s ability to safely operate prisons. He 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.
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.
Perhaps most importantly, he insisted that correctional staff maintain control of prison yards where literally hundreds of inmates were allowed to congregate for hours on end. In many instances, staff were afraid to walk across the prison yards. Coupled with added interior fencing, Mr. Moore’s “controlled movement” policies limited the groups of inmates outside of their assigned areas at any given time.
As recent events at Lee Correctional demonstrated, nowadays we refer to a fight or disturbance involving a dozen or so inmates — isolated in their housing units or unit recreation yards — as “a riot.” Most often, such events never threaten the entire institution. Before Mr. Moore’s tenure, such riots routinely involved hundreds of inmates from multiple units, sometimes taking over entire prison yards and all dormitories.
To combat the impact of perennial legislative recalcitrance toward prison funding, Mr. Moore expanded prison industries and farming operations. This brought in income, lowered costs and created more opportunities for inmates to work and earn wages. He placed an emphasis on the inherent value of work, requiring as many inmates to work as possible. All of these efforts combated idleness, instilled work ethic and taught valuable trades and skills.
Mr. Moore also figured out how to build more beds with less money. The U.S. Congress offered the fool’s gold of prison construction dollars to encourage states to follow its lead in adopting dangerous and ineffective laws such as longer sentences and no-parole polices. Mr. Moore stretched those federal prison construction dollars and created more inmate work opportunities by using inmate construction crews to build and expand prisons. He even built a concrete plant operated by inmates.
Each corrections director faces different problems, obstacles and challenges, internally and externally. Serving as director of corrections is a difficult, thankless and often impossible job where you are expected to solve problems created by bad law and bad policy, while being intentionally deprived of the necessary resources by the very Legislature that adopted those bad laws and policies.
On the other hand, it is a wonderfully challenging job where good leadership really can make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of people and in the organization. Mike Moore’s tenure as director was not perfect, but in difficult times and in a difficult job, he made a positive difference for our prison system and for our state.
I am grateful for his service.