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State’s top prison posts hold ties to Camden

Posted: January 15, 2013 5:06 p.m.
Updated: January 16, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Michael Ulmer/C-I

Camden residents John Carmichael (left) and Judge Bill Byars (right) oversee thousands of employees and inmates as part of their duties with the S.C. Department of Corrections.

 

Bill Byars and John Carmichael may know more about prisons than anyone else in South Carolina. Far from holding extensive rap sheets, the two Camden residents serve as stewards of the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDOC), running the state’s $413 million prison system.

Byars, picked as the director of the SCDOC by Gov. Nikki Haley in 2010, has served in a variety of local and statewide roles with the goal of impacting at-risk members of the community. Before taking charge of the state’s prisons, he led the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) after being appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003.

“These are the least of God’s children,” Byars said, referring to the resources available for youths and inmates he’s worked with at DJJ and DOC. “Many of them have had very, very hard lives. Many of them have had very, very few chances.” 

Raised in Barnwell County, Byars graduated from Louisiana State University and moved to Camden shortly after getting married in 1967.

“Quite frankly, Camden was our first choice,” he said, explaining how he and his wife tried to find the best place to live as young newlyweds.

Byars graduated from the University of South Carolina (USC) Law School in 1972 and was then hired by the law firm of Savage, Royall and Sheheen in Camden. Practicing law for 17 years, he also served as Kershaw County Attorney and chairman of the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees.

In 1989, Byars was elected a family court judge for the 5th Circuit, serving Kershaw County in that role for 10 years.

“I became really interested in the way we were handling our youth. I’m interested in kids. I have children of my own. I just became concerned with how we were dealing with certain folks,” Byars said.

During the late 1990’s, he worked alongside Camden native Libba Patterson to help establish the Children’s Law Center at USC, serving as director of the law center becoming taking over DJJ. Byars said he wasn’t keen on making a move from DJJ, but after much deliberation, decided to accept Haley’s offer to take over the DOC.

Byars was succinct in his description of the difference in the two departments – “executions.”

“I had to think about that for awhile. That’s a big difference,” he said. “Plus, it’s huge. It’s also not dealing with children. My issues in the past had involved children and these were older children.” 

Looking for “innovative thinkers” to help transition into the department, Byars sought the help of Carmichael, recently retired director of the Wateree River Correctional Facility near Rembert.

“I knew John. I actually had tried to hire him when I was at juvenile justice. He knows this business,” Byars said.

Carmichael served in Rembert as warden from 1981 until retiring in March 2004. In February 2011, he came on board with DOC as deputy director of programs and services.

“It’s been a challenge,” Carmichael said. “But the men and women that work here make it a lot easier.”

Carmichael noted the staff currently includes about 6,000 employees and about 21,700 inmates statewide.

“We’re slowly, but surely pulling together a real fine nucleus of centralized services here in the Columbia area,” he said.  

Carmichael grew up in a Navy family and “traveled all over the country.” He attended the University of Georgia for two years and received his undergraduate degree from USC, also studying vocational rehab and personnel management while in graduate school there. He lived in Boykin during his time as warden, but moved to Camden after retiring.

He said one of the key and most interesting characteristics of working for the DOC is that no day is ever the same.

“You get to experience new things all of the time,” Carmichael said. “A lot of people come here and if things had gone better for them, they wouldn’t be here so they deserve a chance to change. I have enjoyed working with that over the years.”

Among other projects as deputy director, Carmichael has helped to rework the menu for young offenders and adjusted the uniform for female inmates, both budget neutral ideas. He also serves as acting director of the department’s health and mental health services, taking over that role about six months ago.

“We’re making good headway there. We’re partnering with other state agencies to better stretch our dollars,” he said. “Our health budget is a huge part of our budget. We have inmates that have everything from cancer to HIV to you name it, and we have to provide that service.”

Carmichael said that while it’s important to understand the inmates are being punished, it’s also necessary to give them some “substance” before being released into the community.

“We’ve expanded our prison industry jobs. We make furniture and license plates. We do private sector work for companies that would be done in Mexico, for instance, but are now being done here,” Carmichael said. “Those are really door openers for our inmates when they get out.”

Byars agreed, saying he’s meet some “amazing people” serving sentences.

“They have to be punished because they’ve done something wrong, but you also have to give them some skills so they have a chance to go out and get a job. They’re going to have a big mark against them when they are released,” Byars said. “People are not going to go out and starve to death. When they leave here, they either have to have a skill or a job or they are going to go back to doing what they were doing.”

Providing opportunities is a long-term commitment, according to Byars. 

“If you can give somebody a hand up, you’re going to probably get a better result,” he said. “It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about trying to be smart with your neighbors and teaching them what to do and how to do it.”

Byars said, however, that certain inmates should truly be kept in prison forever.  

“This is not a place where you can come in and just think you’re going to change everything and everyone will just ride off into the sunset never to do wrong again,” he said. “There are people in here that would really hurt you. There are people in here that should never get out, but even those have a right to be treated in certain ways that are decent.”

 

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