FORMER JUDGE and associate state Supreme Court justice E.C. Burnett III visits with inmates at Tyger River Correctional Institution in Enoree, South Carolina, on March 16. Every Monday, Burnett and the men of Mt. Calvary Presbyterian Church visit the correctional institution for a night worship service. They may be the only visitors some inmates have at the medium-security prison.

FORMER JUDGE and associate state Supreme Court justice E.C. Burnett III visits with inmates at Tyger River Correctional Institution in Enoree, South Carolina, on March 16. Every Monday, Burnett and the men of Mt. Calvary Presbyterian Church visit the correctional institution for a night worship service. They may be the only visitors some inmates have at the medium-security prison.

ENOREE, S.C.

The sun makes a grand display in one of the ugliest of places.

Gold light bathes men playing basketball and gleams on the barbed wire that separates them from the outside. It’s Monday. E.C. Burnett III and three friends are here for their weekly visit.

The men are part of a Bible study ministry at Mt. Calvary Presbyterian Church. Every Monday, they make the drive to Tyger River Correctional Institution in Enoree for a Monday night worship service. They may be the only visitors some inmates have at the medium-security prison.

Burnett served as a judge in circuit, family and probate courts. He was serving as a state Supreme Court justice when he announced his retirement from the bench in September 2007.

“I’ve been there a long time,” Burnett said at the time. “There are so many other things that need to be done — the usual and the unusual — and it’s time to go and do those other things.”

Burnett said he would spend part of his retirement leading Bible studies. He felt a “burden” to minister to inmates. Some were the very souls he sentenced for crimes. He became involved with prison ministry in 2008.

Burnett, Jack Rhodes, Michael West and Fred Thrailkill place their Bibles in containers on a conveyer belt. The Holy Word, their shoes and belts make their way through an X-ray. A guard frisks each man before they enter the first in a series of locked doors that will take them to the lower yard.

“Hello, young man,” Burnett says to an inmate.

They arrive to a large room. Some inmates already are there. More than 30 prisoners soon arrive in a single file. Burnett and friends welcome them. Burnett smiles and shakes hands. He hugs some and greets them as brother.

“Good to see ya,” he says.

Inmates sing hymns before West reads from John 21:15-23 and offers a message on comparing yourself to another.

“Are we stuck in our guilt?” he asks the inmates. The important thing, he tells them, is loving Christ.

West explains that a group of eight laymen teach “God’s Word” on alternate Monday nights through the church’s prison ministry.

“The bottom line, it’s a simple act of love to isolated Christian men in prison who have already been forgiven by God, and they volunteer to come on a regular basis for Bible study. Jesus used the service analogy of ‘offering a cup of cold water’ to a thirsty soul. These men in prison deserve that cold cup of water just as much as anyone,” West says.

One inmate addresses the crowd. He tells them that he became a Christian at 12. He later became addicted to drugs and alcohol. He said he tried 12-step groups and rehabilitation, but remained miserable. Jesus’s crucifixion, he said, was what liberated him from that misery.

“I’m no longer in bondage to that,” the inmate says of substances.

Prisoners sing another hymn — “Near the Cross.”

“Near the cross I’ll watch and wait / hoping, trusting ever / Till I reach the golden strand / Just beyond the river,” some sing together.

Burnett and the others sit among prisoners clad in tan state-issued uniforms with SCDC in bold, black letters on their backs.

Burnett seems at ease. He says 30 to 50 men usually attend the service.

At the time of their recent visit, 1,229 men were imprisoned at Tyger River. Warden Tim Riley said 82 percent are violent offenders.

Thrailkill addresses the group.

“There’s nowhere we’d rather be than Tyger River tonight,” Thrailkill tells the crowd. He delivers a message from Mark 7.

“There are going to be so many people who miss heaven by 18 inches,” Thrailkill says. He said they have knowledge in their minds, but not their hearts.

He challenges inmates to reach out to their families and others — to make amends and seek forgiveness.

After the message, Burnett talks to an inmate serving as a translator for another inmate who has a question about his sentence. Burnett often is asked legal questions.

Burnett said he came to realize that inmates were rarely prepared to re-enter society after serving long sentences.

“Transitioning back to civilian life is very difficult after 12 or 13 years,” Burnett said.

He said it is a challenging task to weigh society’s interest, attempt to make the victim whole and mete out a sentence that is severe enough to punish an offender, but not so lengthy that it crushes his hope.

“I have such an affinity for these men and women. I want so much to see their lives changed, and only Jesus Christ can change anyone’s heart,” Burnett said.

He wants them to witness both inside and outside the prison.

Burnett has seen some men he’s sentenced. He was approached in 2009 by an inmate he sentenced in the 1980s. Burnett questioned why the inmate was there — he knew it was not his sentence. The man told Burnett he was serving his third sentence.

People occasionally question how a former judge and justice would become involved in a prison ministry.

“There’s such a need there. Though the need is great outside the prison, the need is great inside the prison,” he said.

“Would you rather an inmate come out of prison as a more proficient criminal or a changed man of God?” he adds.


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