Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Open Doors in a Maximum-Security Prison: Why This Counterintuitive Approach Works

July 17, 2015
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Open Doors in a Maximum-Security Prison: Why This Counterintuitive Approach Works
Michael McCall speaks with officers inside the BLIC dorm at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. Courtesy Stephanie Givens
Michael McCall, a lifelong prison warden, is seeking redemption in South Carolina's most dangerous facility.

Within his first two weeks on the job as the new warden of Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, Michael McCall faced a hostage situation. Prisoners captured a guard and held him in a closet until other corrections officers rushed the dorm. Three months later, a group incited another riot. Inmates and guards alike were afraid to walk across the yard. Three or four times a week, McCall dealt with a stabbing, he recalls.

In the wake of the dangerous violence, McCall pondered how to excise the brutal culture that dominated the Palmetto State’s largest Level 3 facility. Instead of imposing further punishment, McCall responded by allowing convicts to improve themselves. Solitary confinement wouldn’t change behaviors, but some taste of freedom could.

He created the Better Living Incentive Community (BLIC), a special dorm for prisoners with a clean record where security feels laxer and they’re allowed to take classes. Offenders must apply for acceptance to the dorm — 256 live in the dorm at Lee; another 300 are on a waiting list — and they have to remain on good behavior to stay. Since its founding in 2012, there hasn’t been a single incident requiring discipline: no thefts, no drugs, no contraband phones, no emergency responses. Nothing. Why? The simple fact that no one wants to go back to the pen.

“I was raised an old country boy: ’Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’ Being born here in the South, you hear a lot of people say that,” McCall tells NationSwell. “That does not work. These guys are going to be our neighbors some day. Our job is to make them a better person, and [through BLIC] we’re giving them an opportunity to do that. I learned that very quickly in my career.”

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McCall, who took a job in corrections because he couldn’t find other work, has since been promoted to deputy director of operations for the entire state’s corrections department. He’s on a mission to bring his more humane methods to other max-security facilities and eventually convert whole institutions — not just individual dorms — to the BLIC model. If his version of criminal justice can work at the state’s toughest prison, he reasons, it can work anywhere.

McCall first developed the BLIC model in 2009 while he overseeing Perry Correctional, another Level 3 facility. His superiors asked him to come up with a faith-based program, but the idea didn’t sit well with him. “I wanted to see a community — a character institution — where everyone was involved,” McCall says. “Muslim, Christian, atheist: I didn’t care what you were. You were coming together as one.” BLIC’s precursor at Perry focused on self-improvement and community-building. Inmates held one another accountable. They talked out problems, rather than resorting to violence.

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The same concepts took hold quickly at Lee. If you walk into the BLIC dorm there, the first thing you’d notice is the serene quiet. Some inmates might be dipping brushes in acrylic paints; others are practicing chords for bass guitar (the advanced group) or keyboard (the beginners). You almost forget you’re in a maximum-security prison.

Elsewhere in the dorm, there’s beekeeping, barbering and Biblical Greek. Instructors are talking about improving character, resolving conflict and reconnecting with emotions. Unlike classes at South Carolina’s other prisons, which are taught by volunteers, all classes at Lee are taught by the inmates themselves. Even with this restriction, there’s four dozen classes at Lee alone.

The opportunity to enrich themselves proves transformative for many prisoners. They begin to realize they may have made a mistake, but that error doesn’t necessarily determine what they do next. “I put myself here [in prison]. I’m responsible for the actions that I took that got me here. I’m guilty. I’m paying man’s price for what I did,” an inmate named Randy, who’s serving a life sentence for murder, tells a local TV station. “But I’m at peace with myself,” he adds about his life in the BLIC dorm. “For the first time since 1977, I can relax.”

Offenders like Randy are the people McCall hopes to reach. They’re the ones who are making the most of their time behind bars, the ones who see incarceration not as a sentence, but as an opportunity.

”Having lived in this department for decades, this new BLIC unit has given me the opportunity to learn what it is to be a man in my six-decade life,” Randy says. “I’ve been a slave my whole life to alcohol and drugs and I couldn’t be freer in this prison.”

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