From GEDs to Horticulture, Life at Leath About Rehabilitation
By Adam Benson, Index-journal
In one of the largest areas of Leath Correctional Institution, the cacophony of sewing machines is almost enough to drown out sounds of inmate laughter and conversation.
As women in the Prison Industries’ private sector section create T-shirts for firms that contract with the U.S. Army, Disney and AT&T, other teal-clad inmates are busy at work producing linens, bedding and clothing distributed throughout the state’s Department of Corrections system.
Standing over a semi-enclosed cubicle, a third group of women construct handmade stuffed animals or customized blankets and scarves. These items will find their way to local nonprofits such as Beyond Abuse, the American Cancer Society’s Relay or Life or agencies that work with abused children.
This is prison, yes. But it’s not the kind shown in Hollywood blockbusters or TV shows.
“The judge gave them their punishment. We’re not here to punish them again,” Maj. Michele Carter, who has worked at the Greenwood women’s prison for 17 ½ years, said. “I tell my officers, you got to give respect to get respect. They’re inmates, but they’re also human.”
Leath, which opened in 1991, is one of the state’s two female prisons. Currently housing 622 inmates – with a maximum occupancy of 844 – the sense of community among its denizens is strong, as it would be, officials say, in any other neighborhood with a 73.7 percent occupancy rate.
SCDC policy prohibits inmates from being named or otherwise identified, but prison officials did not bar an Index-Journal reporter from interviewing several during a recent site visit as part of National Correctional Officers and Employees Week. On Tuesday, Greenwood’s city and county councils recognized Carter, Leath Warden Patricia Yeldell and Gilchrist with a proclamation, thanking them and all employees for their work.
“A lot of people think this is the end, but it’s not. It’s the beginning. Being in prison saved my life. Or otherwise, I’d probably be in here for murder,” said one prisoner, who recently completed a systemwide peer support program to help fellow inmates who are struggling with substance abuse.
She and others who went through the curriculum wear a badge on their uniform, always available to speak privately with those who might need their advice. The counselors meet four times a week with groups of 15 women.
“If I could make a difference in one person’s life, then doing my time’s not in vain,” one program leader said. “We understand every step that they’re taking.”
From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., no prisoner is in her cell. Those who aren’t receiving medical care might be taking classes through Palmetto Unified, SCDC’s state-sanctioned school system that offers vocational classes, GED and high school diploma courses and career readiness programs.
Or they could be cooking meals in the cafeteria, doing maintenance and grounds work or taking part in a faith-based program aimed at easing their transition back into society.
Tammy Cunningham, principal of Leath’s Palmetto Unified school, frequently announces over the prison’s public address system the names of inmates who have earned a GED.
“Let me tell you, it’s no greater feeling in the world. It makes you feel so good, it really does,” Cunningham said.