A Lee Correctional Inmate and a leader in the Academy of Hope Program.

BISHOPVILLE, S.C. – A year after a deadly prison riot claimed the lives of seven inmates at Lee Correctional Institution, Andre Norman aimed to bring convicted murderers, rapists, and other hardened criminals together to teach them how to end violence and find freedom within the walls of the prison they will never leave.

Prison spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said the program has been in place since May 2019, and since then there have been no violent outbreaks.

Norman’s “Academy of Hope” has brought gang leaders and other influential inmates from prisons across the state to Lee Correctional where they now live together in one unit.

Around 40 inmates live in their own cell blocks, taking classes together every day and getting a dose of tough love from powerful leaders from across the country, including Stedman Graham Jr., Oprah Winfrey’s longtime partner, retired military officers, former offenders and pastors.

“What makes this program work is a collaboration,” said Norman, a Massachusetts entrepreneur who served time in prison for gang-related crimes. “We’re not on white horses; we didn’t role in here by ourselves. South Carolina Department of Corrections and the ‘Academy of Hope’ work together.  It takes a collaboration of people coming together and working together to get good results.”

One recent afternoon, “Academy of Hope” leaders and other inmates gathered in the Chapel in Lee Correctional and heard some powerful words from the Rev. John Gray, head of Relentless Church in Greenville.

Gray has come under fire for lavish spending at his churches, but on this day he offered a message of hope and faith.  He gave these inmates a lesson on freedom from within and finding the purpose that God has for them. The hope is to help the inmates break the string of  violence and learn how to coexist while teaching them how to talk to  treat people and lead other people.

One inmate lauded the program for what it has given him. 

“People bring so many programs to the yard,” said one inmate, who said he has missed the birth of grandchildren while incarcerated. “We got four, five different programs on the yard, but it’s never beneficial to the prisoners, you’re just there,” noting how the Academy of Hope has shown him how to be a better man for his family from inside a prison.

“AOH shows you 10 times more that, because they teach you how to think for yourself, how to take care of your family, how to conduct yourself around people. So it teaches you a whole lot,” he said.

Outside the walls of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C.

Pastor John Gray sending his words of faith and wisdom to the inmates of Lee Correctional.