Ozmint’s leadership example

(Post and Courier)

Jon Ozmint will hand over the keys to the state prison system today, having spent eight years at the Corrections Department doing more with less. Much more.

Provided inadequate funding in legislative budgets year after year, the Corrections director, an appointee of departing Gov. Mark Sanford, cut expenses where possible while maintaining security and actually making improvements. To the extent that his bare-bones budgets permitted, Mr. Ozmint enhanced educational and rehabilitation opportunities for inmates. Similarly, he improved standards for corrections officers, recognizing their essential role in making the system work.

The department’s increased capacity to produce food for inmates demonstrates the convergence of department goals under Mr. Ozmint’s administration. The former prosecutor directed the expansion of prison farm operations for egg, milk and crop production, building new farm buildings with money generated from the sale of eggs and milk. By doing so, the cost of feeding the system’s 24,000 prisoners was reduced to the lowest level in the nation — $1.51 a day per inmate. Meanwhile, more prisoners were working on prison farms, engaged in responsible work that can have a rehabilitative effect.

Corrections saw its budget for prison education cut in half during Mr. Ozmint’s term as director. Nevertheless, his administration managed to increase the number of high school equivalency degrees and vocational certificates awarded to inmates by 20 percent.

Those cuts were largely offset by streamlining the prison education system, eliminating administrative duplication. It should serve as an example for state government, which faces a huge budget shortfall for the next fiscal year. That’s not to say Mr. Ozmint was able to solve all the department’s problems. The prison system is required to accommodate the prisoners the courts send them, and it has to provide a secure lockup with the money provided by the Legislature.

Corrections has been forced to operate at a deficit because of legislative budget cuts. ‘I regret that I was unable to convince the General Assembly to adequately fund this agency,’ Mr. Ozmint told our reporter. ‘The employees of this agency deserve more concern for their safety. Funding vests and body alarms and providing adequate staffing for prisons ought to be more important than festivals and parades and balloons and even elective gastric bypass surgery.’ Nevertheless, his credibility as a no-nonsense reformer was instrumental in advancing a sentencing reform law that will allow the Corrections Department to concentrate its resources on dangerous prisoners in the future. The Legislature passed the measure last session. But more alternatives in sentencing are still needed, he said.

Mr. Ozmint’s yet-to-be-approved reform proposals deserve the consideration of both his successor, former Judge Bill Byars, and the Legislature. Those include merging the parole and probation department with Corrections. And a drug treatment center is badly needed for the many inmates who arrive in prison with substance abuse problems, he said.

The federal government should follow his plan to use jamming technology to block illegal cell phone use in prisons. It was a cause for which Mr. Ozmint served as a national spokesman for prison administrators. The proposal would provide greater security from inmates who use smuggled cell phones to operate their criminal enterprises while behind bars. Mr. Ozmint can leave the prison system secure in the knowledge that he made the best of a difficult situation.

He leaves Judge Byars with a solid foundation for greater improvements, and an example of creative budgeting for the Legislature to consider as it deals with an $800 million shortfall in state revenue.