SC’s recidivism rate is the country’s lowest, but it’s even lower for inmate graduates of this program

An inmate receives his diploma from Columbia International University during a ceremony at...
An inmate receives his diploma from Columbia International University during a ceremony at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia on Dec. 9, 2022.(Mary Green)
Published: Dec. 9, 2022 at 8:28 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - During a ceremony at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia on Friday, a group of four inmates harmonized a hymn with the repeated line, “I can’t even walk without you holding my hand.”

That afternoon, 14 of those inmates took their next steps on the walk to a better life.

“Amazing. You can’t put words to that,” one of them, Jeremy, said. (The South Carolina Department of Corrections requests members of the press only use inmates’ first names.)

On Friday, 13 new graduates earned their associate degree, and one earned his bachelor’s degree while they have been incarcerated, through Columbia International University’s Prison Initiative Program.

The program began in 2007 and since then, more than a dozen graduating classes or cohorts have earned degrees, with the 13th doing so Friday.

Inmates must apply and complete an interview process to take part in the program.

“I came to prison eight-and-a-half years ago, and I didn’t even have a GED,” Wolfgang, the inmate who earned his bachelor’s degree, said.

Corrections leaders say this program pays off, though no taxpayer dollars go toward it, as Columbia International University has paid for it since its inception.

South Carolina boasts the lowest recidivism rate in the entire country at 19%, according to Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, meaning four out of five inmates do not return to prison within three years of their release.

Among graduates of this program, that rate is just 5%, which Stirling called astonishing.

“It means prison safety,” Stirling said. “It means South Carolina safety. It means safety for our communities because when these folks get out, what we hope they’re going to do is go work in communities and use these degrees to turn other people’s lives around.”

After graduation, inmates serve the rest of their sentence while also serving as either a hospice worker at Kirkland or as a chaplain assistant there or at another state prison.

In addition to the challenges and work that come with earning a degree, Friday’s graduates overcame another obstacle: Their degrees were delayed a year because of the pandemic as lockdowns made classes, taught in-person at the prison by CIU staff, impossible.

“It was the most trying experience we’ve ever had, but you can transcend anything if you put your mind to it,” Jeremy, who spoke at the ceremony on behalf of his classmates, said.

This wasn’t like most graduations in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most notable was that, unlike most commencement ceremonies, cheering after each and every graduate’s name was read, as they walked to receive their diploma, wasn’t just allowed but encouraged, with their loved ones in attendance.

“I spent much of my life doing bad things, and now to have turned over a new leaf and to be receiving praise for doing good is awesome,” Wolfgang said.

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