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Caring about prisoners central to Parker Evatt

“Jesus was caring about people who were sick and in prison,” he said, when asked why we should care.

After the 1966 death of its founder, the Rev. Eli Alston Wilkes Jr., the Alston Wilkes Society needed money, so Evatt went to Sunday school classes at his church, College Place United Methodist, and got about 25 people to sign up for the $3 memberships. A mechanical engineer with the S.C. Highway Department, Evatt soon was taking a big cut in pay to become the society’s executive director.

At the end of his first year, the agency had survived with $7,000 was left over.

Evatt ran for the House of Representatives in 1974 because he thought it would speed the process of getting money to help with services for the incarcerated and their families. “We were always knocking on the door to get funded and couldn’t get what was needed,” he said. The Correction commissioner, Ellis McDougal, had no money. Evatt felt getting education into the system was a key to lowering the recidivism rates.

“If you go into any first and second-grade class and see kids who aren’t learning to read and write and I can tell you which ones are going to end up in prison,” Evatt said.

In 1981, after losing a lawsuit and determining a court-run prison system would cost a lot more than a state-run operation, the S.C. Legislature mandated the Palmetto Unified School District which was to maximize the academic, vocational and life skills of student inmates for their successful return to society.

Dr. Wil Lou Gray, famed S.C. educator and devoted Methodist, called Evatt to say, “I’m glad I lived long enough to see them start educating prisoners. They laughed at me in New York. ‘You don’t even educate your prisoners in South Carolina,’” they told her.

Today, the Department of Corrections reports the average grade level is 10.5, and the average reading level is 8.5, numbers that seem high to Evatt.

With Evatt’s support both in the House and his work for the Alston Wilkes Society, McDougal started pre-release centers for the last 30 days of sentences; that grew into work-release centers.

Evatt recalled going to United Way for support and busily giving details of their work when Drake Edens interrupted him to say, “All you need to know about the Alston Wilkes Society is this, ‘We’re trying to help people help themselves and stay out of crime. Parker Evatt called Marion Burnsides, a Plymouth dealer in Columbia, and told him he had a former prisoner who knew everything about Plymouths and pledged to be his star salesman and would sign an agreement that Burnsides could fire him for no reason. At the end of the third month, Burnsides called Parker and said he was his top salesman and it was the same at the end of the year.’”

When Evatt became the Department of Corrections commissioner in 1987, he began a number of programs including HIV/AIDS education, alcohol and drug abuse and training academy for DOC employees. They were seen as national models because they were cooperative efforts with state agencies already in place. For example, the Department of Social Services worked with DOC, training welfare mothers in three S.C. cities to be corrections officers, taking care of their children during the. The mothers moved into jobs and off welfare.

The Alex English Reading Improvement Program is probably on of the closet to Evatt’s heart. Prisoners were trained to tutor their peers, and each year the former basketball star would come to present medallions to the most improved student and the year’s best tutor. Evatt remembers one year the tutoring recipient was a young man who had tutored five prisoners. English didn’t have to bend over to put the medallion on a tall, 75-year-old man who was the tutor’s most improved student. “Why, at your age, did you want to learn to read?” English asked. “Because now I can read the Bible any time I want. I don’t have to wait for someone to read it to me.”

It’s a sorrow to Evatt that a new governor and a new commissioner swept all those kind of programs away.

Evatt had 600 people in a program that built prison facilities and, in the process, taught skills they could use in the building trade. They built a whole prison in Edgefield County, he said. They had learned to make pre-cast concrete forms, but the new commissioner, Michael Moore, had the molds cut up.

When the drug scene came on, he said, things changed. “Unless you do something with the problem while they’re incarcerated, they’re going to come right back. We don’t have enough preventive funding.”

Even with his disappointments, Evatt still hears of good results brought about by his Alston Wilkes volunteers. Evatt got a list of all the prisoners who had never had a visitor – 40 percent of the population – and enlisted volunteers to visit. Allan Shurr, Columbia, had to have his arm twisted to sign up for visitor training, but he visited the same man for 20 years, until the prisoner’s death. Claude Hughley of Columbia was another faithful visitor, Evatt cited. Roy Smith visited two prisoners, one who hated whites and another who hated blacks, but because of Smith’s visits, the two became friends. Smith visited one young man and asked about his mother who the prisoner hadn’t seen in years. The young man got a call from his mother from her faraway part of the state that was interrupted by a knock on her door. When she returned to the phone, she said, “It’s your friend, Mr. Smith.”

COMMITTED TO PRISON SERVICES – Parker Evatt, layleader at Virginia Wingard UMC in Columbia, at the church’s altar. While commission, Evatt was awarded the American Correctional Association’s highest honor, the E. R. Cass Award.

Total inmate count in South Carolina*:

  • 1980:  7,869 (an increase of 191% in 10 years)
  • 1990:  16,149 (an increase of 105% in 10 years)
  • 2000:  22,053 (an increase of 37% in 10 years)
  • 2000:  Costs per inmate: $15,142, totaling $333 million.
  • 2008:  All costs per inmate: $16,462
  • 2009:  8% age 21 and under; 22 -25, 13%; 26-35, 34%; 36-55, 39%; 56 and over, 5%.
  • One 10th of 1 percent are retarded;
  • 12% are mentally ill.
  • Overall recidivism rate for 2003: 32.7%
*Figures from the S.C. Department of Corrections

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