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Prisons Chief Reflects On His Wins, Regrets

Updated: May 16, 2018

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina is at risk for doing little more than warehousing inmates if state lawmakers don't make an investment in the Department of Corrections, Jon Ozmint warned Tuesday.

The state's prisons are scraping by, running on less cash than any other system in the country. Inmates eat three meals a day for $1.51 each. Medical costs break down to $7.85 a day per inmate.

Educational spending has been cut by half, while 20 percent more inmates are earning GEDs and vocational certificates. And despite the challenges, the rate that prisoners in South Carolina return to jail cells after they've served their time is lower than the national average.

But the balancing act is at a tipping point, Ozmint -- the fifth-longest-serving corrections director in the nation -- said in a warning to his successor Bill Byars and Gov.-elect Nikki Haley.

"I regret that I was unable to convince the General Assembly to adequately fund this agency," Ozmint said, from his wood-paneled office a la 1970 on the prisons' sprawling Broad River Road complex, less than 10 miles from the Statehouse.

"The employees of this agency deserve more concern for their safety. Funding vests and body alarms and providing adequate staffing for prisons ought to be more important than festivals and parades and balloons and even elective gastric bypass surgery."

Ozmint, 45, sat down with The Post and Courier to talk about the eight years he spent in charge of the state's 24,000 inmates and the agency's 5,800 employees. Haley tapped Byars, a former Family Court judge who currently runs the state Department of Juvenile Justice, to replace Ozmint when her administration takes over Jan. 12.

Ozmint said he will work hard to support Byars during the transition and has trust in Byars' dedication and ability.

Known for his candor, Ozmint has sometimes clashed with lawmakers, a few of whom he accused without naming of trying to manipulate the system by asking him to play favorites or bend the rules for prison staff or certain constituents. He has been a top ally to Gov. Mark Sanford, tight with a dollar and known for making unannounced after-midnight checks in the prisons. His legacy will include the establishment of several faith-based services for inmates, including a seminary of sorts behind the razor wire.

Ozmint, a married father of four, said he expects to go into private law practice. He is a graduate of The Citadel, a longtime prosecutor and former judge advocate general for the Navy. He earns $144,746 a year.

Sanford said he is grateful for Ozmint's dedicated service.

"Jon's tireless advocacy for public safety and efforts to watch out for the taxpayer have paid immense dividends for our state," Sanford said. "By running South Carolina's prison system as effectively and efficiently as anyone else in the nation, and by pushing much-needed reforms on everything from restructuring and sentencing reform to cell phone jamming, Jon and his team at Corrections have served this state well."

Ozmint has been given kudos for his work to get Congress to pass legislation allowing corrections officials to block cell-phone signals behind prison walls to prevent inmates from being able to get their hands on drugs and other forbidden items. But some of his decisions have been controversial, such as requiring inmates who engaged in sex acts -- either alone or with others -- to wear pink jumpsuits, and continuing a nearly 20-year policy to separate HIV- and AIDS- positive inmates from the rest of the population.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the state locks up too many people and needs to focus more on rehabilitation as well as punishment, a requirement in the state's constitution.

"It's not enough just to talk about reform, we need to see action -- even in a tough budget climate," Middleton said. "That means diverting non-violent offenders into community programs, expanding work release and good-time credits, and making sure people are prepared to re-enter the community safely. We would like to see the HIV segregation policy end; it's out of step with good corrections practice and perpetuates stigma at the expense of rehabilitating people."

Although the ACLU regularly has tested Ozmint's prison policies in court, Ozmint has spent his tenure pushing for some of the very positions the advocacy group champions. Likewise, Haley said she wants Byars to do more to prepare inmates to return to society and bolster their chance of never being locked up again.

Ozmint said that if state lawmakers had completely funded his budget requests, he thinks the rate that prisoners return to jail cells would be as low as 28 percent. The state's recidivism rate stands at 33.5 percent, already lower than the 37 percent national average.

The Corrections Department's budget is $294 million, although the agency has run a deficit during the economic downturn. The state's $5 billion budget is facing a shortfall of up to $1 billion next year.

Ozmint said the state could end up saving cash if lawmakers would make some an up-front investments and authorize more alternative sentencing solutions. One idea he has long advocated is to merge the Corrections Department with the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services to provide more protection to the public and streamline services. He also said that for less than $2 million, the state could add another 500 addiction treatment beds and serve up to 2,000 more inmates a year.

Ozmint said leaving is bittersweet.

"Judge Byars is an incredibly bright guy," Ozmint said. "He has a real heart for this work.

"(My wife) Luanne and I made this not only our job but our ministry. We gave ourselves to it. If you don't feel like you're leaving something of yourself behind, then you either have no soul or you really didn't go all in. And we went all in. We believe in this agency. We believe in the people who work here. And we believe in the inmates."

Ozmint highlights

Jon Ozmint's time as director of the S.C. Department of Corrections included some notable achievements. Here are some:

  • Chosen by the U.S. State Department to train prison officials in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Reduced inmate escapes and assaults.

  • Oversaw the construction of a $12.6 million dairy at Wateree River Correctional Institution that will produce over 2 million gallons of milk a year.

  • Opened a new $1.8 million egg-laying facility that produces over 2 million eggs a year and supplies all of inmates' eggs with no state funding.

  • Raised standards for employee conduct and accountability.

  • Key advocate for the state's sentencing reform.

  • Led the national effort to eliminate cell phone use by inmates.

  • Banned smoking in prisons on Jan. 1, 2008.

  • Maintained the country's lowest food costs for inmates for seven consecutive years and kept medical costs the lowest in the nation for three years.

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