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Camden’s Bill Byars supported SCDC as governor, legislature supported him

Posted: October 4, 2013 5:07 p.m.
Updated: October 7, 2013 5:00 a.m.

It’s hard to argue with the numbers: the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) has reduced its inmate population almost to 1998 levels and begun generating a surplus after several years of severe deficits.

While many might point to its most recent director, Camden’s Bill Byars, who retired a week ago, as the reason for those turnarounds, Byars barely takes any credit himself. Instead, he commends his staff, from his immediate subordinates to correctional officers, for doing what needed to be done.

“People love to work for Bill because he just doesn’t bring an ego to the task,” his wife, Camille said during a joint interview Wednesday with her husband and SCDC Communications Director Clark Newsome. “The people that he worked with -- his executive staff -- when he told them he was retiring, there was not a dry eye in the house and they just looked like they’d been hit by a sledgehammer. He knows most of these people already knew their jobs. He wasn’t there to tell them how to do their jobs, he (was) there to make their jobs more possible.”

She and Newsome said Byars brought not only a particular philosophy with him from his time as director of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), but some of DJJ’s staff and others who followed that philosophy.

“Now that part I will agree with,” Byars said, somewhat embarrassed of any praise for himself. “They know what to do. What they need is somebody to open the door and get the resources. One of the things when we have a meeting is, the first thing, is ask ‘What’s the problem?’ If you define the problem, what things can we do to make it better.”

After that, he said, it’s a matter of finding the funds and the people to make that happen.

“When you get the right people -- and that’s one of the things I found -- all you’ve got to do is ask the right question,” Byars said.

The right people

When Bill Byars arrived at SCDC in December 2010 after being nominated by Gov. Nikki Haley, he found a department sorely in need of help.

“These people are so used to working with virtually nothing,” he said.

So, he went to bat for them with the governor and with the state legislature. Haley had given him a mandate: no more deficits. Since then, Byars has been able to close three prisons.

“And as we do that, we’ve been able to take that money because the governor didn’t take it from us, we’re able to pour that back in to strengthening what is there. It’s not (just) that the number of people in prison are going down, but now resources we can bring to them to teach them how to get a job, to teach them job skills so they can go out and get the job, to teach them how to act -- showing up on time and all that -- those soft skills,” Byars said.

He said freeing up the funds from the closed prisons meant SCDC could have more people to teach those soft skills. Two of the people Byars mentioned are Kennard DuBose, SCDC’s director of behavioral/mental health and substance abuse services and SCDC Director of Youth Offender Institutional Services Ginny Barr.

“He knows job skills,” he said of DuBose. “What we need is when somebody gets out of prison, they’ve got to be able to get a job. We can do some training, but we got Kennard to do this. Ginny has all these folks who work with the prisoners while they’re in there and as they’re getting out, helping them find jobs.”

“She’s in the youth offender and reentry services,” Newsom explained, “and they follow them from the day they come in to the time that they’re out and make sure they get the skills so that when they do get back in society, they can be productive.”

Newsome said only six people have come back into the prison system since that program fully launched in January.

“I like what she said to me the other day,” Camille Byars said: “‘I have never worked so hard in my life, and loved it so much.’ She is on.”

Bill Byars explained that, originally, youthful offenders in SCDC were released from jail under S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services jurisdiction.

“(But) their resources had just dissipated, and so one of the things that we did -- and I talked to folks at the legislature who said they wanted us to do that -- we took that back and began to do that,” he said. “We brought Ginny in who really modeled the program more like what they did at juvenile justice and began to teach them more job skills.”

Similar to what Byars enacted at DJJ, SCDC now has one intensive supervision officer for each county in the state that follows released inmates reintegrating into their communities.

“She’s brought a lot of awfully good people from a lot of diverse backgrounds to serve in those positions,” Newsom said.

Byars also mentioned Bob Ward, SCDC’s deputy director of operations, whom he described as an “old prison guy.”

“He’s got a big heart, although he tries to hide it. He has come into this and has made miraculous changes and gone out and gotten support the folks that were in there,” he said. “He bought into (that) we’re not there just to warehouse these men and women; we’re here to help them change their life if they’re willing to take that first step.”

From those examples -- Kinard, Barr and Ward -- Newsome said Byars’ real job was to be an “enabler to do your job the best way.”

“If you’ve got a problem, he is there to answer that problem and make that job a lot easier and that’s exactly, if you went from department to department and asked people what the judge did for them, that was it,” Newsome said of Byars.

That went hand-in-hand with what Camille Byars called a “paradigm shift” he tried to introduce at SCDC -- one where employees, regardless of position, could unleash their creativity to reinvent their jobs.

“They have new leadership that says, ‘Listen, I know you’ve thought of your job this way, let’s think of it not just that way, of housing people. How are we going to look at what we do differently.’ And then they get inspired and they see results from this new way of thinking … it takes up its own momentum.”

Newsom told the story of an employee who told him Byars came and sat with her one day early in his tenure to talk with her about her work.

“She said it was the first time she’d ever had a director of the agency who took the time to sit down and ‘ask me how I felt’” about her job, Newsom said. “It’s that kind of devotion that people have recognized; it’s why people are happier now and, I think, are more dedicated to what they’re doing.”

Support system

While Byars was doing everything he could to support his staff, he said he gained support not only of the governor who appointed him, but from the legislature as well.

Newsom reiterated that when Byars took over, SCDC had little money to use and what it had was not being properly used. That changed not only due to Byars, he said, but because of Haley. Byars agreed, and added the state legislature to that support.

“The head of the (Senate Finance Committee), Hugh Leatherman knows the finances and he can make things happen, if they’re there. He got involved,” Byars said, adding Sen. Mike Fair, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee. “Just a lot of folks came around who were willing to do something about it.”

“The reason for that,” Newsom added, “is what the judge has done in the past. I mean, they trusted him. He’s been there and done it with DJJ and done it previous to all that. That helped give us the credibility that we needed as an agency to reach those points.”

Byars’ wife agreed.

“They said, ‘We know this guy. He hasn’t done one thing and done something different. He gives us the real honest scoop. He does what he says he’s going to do. He doesn’t misspend. He’s not playing games. It gave SCDC a new credibility, and the numbers bear that credibility out,” Camille Byars said.

Newsome said acting director Bryan Stirling, Haley’s former chief of staff, is apparently following Byars’ lead.

“The governor made it plain … that they wanted to continue what the judge has started and, thankfully, the judge has been able to work with our new director and they seem to be on the same page on an awful lot of things,” Newsome said. “I think that says a lot about what they think of what the judge has accomplished.”

Newsome said there are some things Byars wanted to do that he was unable to prior to retiring. Byars said continuing to improve SCDC is a “long-term commitment” beyond his, Stirling or any other succeeding directors. He said most of what he would like to see is more along the lines of “building up the muscle” of the “skeleton” he’s already created.

“Most of what has been done has come from within the staff. I’m not a specialist in adult corrections,” Byars said. “The trick is to find people out there who really do know it, who know how to put it in place, who understand we have to do it with the minimum amount of dollars because we are building from a great hole.”

While he already had the support of Gov. Haley in terms of his nomination, he, his wife and Newsom all agreed that commitment deepened after an uprising at Lee Correctional Institution in Lee County -- a commitment that resulted in a 3 percent raise for maximum security corrections officers, the most difficult to recruit and keep on staff.

“The governor came in this year and visited Lee Correction and she’s publicly stated that listening to the warden there and some of the other folks and seeing what was happening kind of changed her view,” Newsom said.

Byars said Haley talked with female inmates in addition to corrections officers and male inmates. His wife said she had a lengthy conversation with Haley during which the governor indicated she plans to visit all the prisons in South Carolina.

“‘Oh, money for the prisons? What are you going to do, buy them more basketballs?’ As a legislator, that’s what she saw, nobody fleshed it out,” Camille Byars said. “After (the) incident at Lee, she wanted to go out there. Her people were all like, ‘You can’t do that, you’re the governor.’ ‘Well, I am the governor and I am going out there.’ She got there and she saw and she talked to people, correctional officers, people on the ground and realized these people didn’t have the tools they need in a very dangerous situation. So she started educating herself. She’s really … gotten a handle on the philosophy.”

Byars said the support of the legislature -- both Republicans and Democrats -- and the governor has been extraordinarily helpful.

“The governor -- I’m just not used to having a governor that takes as much interest in an area that I find interesting as we’ve had,” he said.

Camille Byars said Haley plans to host a retirement party for her husband at the governor’s mansion at the end of the month. She said she has every expectation Haley will suggest that the retired SCDC director take a position on a state board or commission.

“To be continued…” Byars said -- and insisting he’s not getting into partisan politics as the 2014 election season draws closer.

Byars decided to retire after three years at least in part due to a stroke he suffered in 2011 that has left him unable to see out of his right eye. He said he plans to spend the remainder of the year “ramping up” therapy he is using to overcome his “deficiencies,” as he called them.

“I intend to go at it. Things have gotten better for me. The books I read have to be a little bit larger than they used to be, but I’ve gotten into my Louis L’Amour books -- they’re just in a little bit taller print, so that’s basically what I’m doing now…”

“As you can well tell, it’s not what he can or can’t see,” Camille Byars interjected, “it’s his ability to think. It’s all his experience and his intellectual reasoning, he didn’t lose any of that.”

“…life is still good, God is still great,” Byars finished.

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