Guards Waited Hours to Stop a Prison Riot That Left 7 Inmates Dead

Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., is a maximum-security prison. Seven inmates were killed there after fights broke out Sunday night.
Credit...Andy McMillan for The New York Times

A bloody melee in a maximum-security prison in South Carolina raged for more than four hours Sunday night before guards moved in to stop it, state officials said Monday. The riot, sparked by gangs within the prison who were warring over territory, money and contraband, left seven inmates dead and 17 injured, many of them stabbed or slashed by improvised blades.

Law enforcement personnel waited to enter three troubled housing units at the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Bishopville, S.C., about 40 miles east of Columbia, until they could assemble enough officers to deal with the problem safely, the head of the state prison system said on Monday.

In the end, no prison guards were injured. But one inmate who witnessed the riot told The Associated Press that felled prisoners’ bodies began stacking up while the guard stayed outside for hours.

Bryan P. Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, defended the response in a news conference Monday. He said that when the first of a series of “inmate-on-inmate altercations” broke out at 7:15 p.m. Sunday, the handful of guards on the scene, knowing they were outnumbered, backed out and called for support. The first large response team did not enter the site of the first fight until 11:30 p.m., he said.

“We are not going to just send one or two officers in there,” Mr. Stirling said. “We’re going to gather a force that is safe for all our officers, and we’re going to go in and we’re going to take that dorm back with force. And if there’s any resistance, we’ll be able to put that resistance down immediately.”

When the trouble started, Mr. Stirling said later in a telephone interview, there were only two guards on duty in each of the three housing units, and they were armed only with pepper spray. Each housing unit holds about 250 inmates.

Assembling an armed SWAT team in a rural area on a Sunday night takes time, he said.

By the time the authorities had regained control, the disturbance at the prison was one of the worst of the last quarter-century. And it was an embarrassment for South Carolina, where officials have been trying to address prison problems with new sentencing policies to reduce the inmate population and higher pay for guards to reduce turnover.

Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said on Monday that the riot was “unfortunate” but that flare-ups among criminals were inevitable.

“We know that prisons are places where people who have misbehaved on the outside go for rehabilitation, and also to take them from the general population,” he said. “It’s not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside prison.”

Mark Keel, chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, said that the exact cause of the riot, and the details of the individual killings, were being investigated. Larry Logan, the coroner for Lee County, S.C., where the prison is located, said that autopsies had not yet been completed, but that it appeared that all of the dead suffered stabs and slashes from improvised weapons.

Lee Correctional Institution, which opened in 1993, houses about 1,500 male inmates, and has a reputation for trouble. In 2013, Michael McCall, then the warden at Lee, said it was the most dangerous prison in South Carolina. The state uses both publicly and privately run prisons; Lee Correctional is public.

Two officers were stabbed there in a 2015 fight. An inmate was killed during a fight in July 2017, another was stabbed to death in November, and a third was killed in February.

Prison managers have also struggled to keep contraband out. In 2014, officials discovered a crashed drone in the bushes near the prison, and said they believed that drones had been used to smuggle drugs and forbidden cellphones into the grounds.

Phones continue to be a problem at Lee, Mr. Stirling said on Monday, because they allow criminals “to continue their criminal ways from behind bars, which is not only dangerous within our institutions, but it’s also dangerous outside our institutions.”

Mr. Stirling said he has been trying to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to block cellphone signals at the prison. Federal officials have resisted such requests, fearing that blocking the signals would make it impossible for those in need of help to call 911 in an emergency.

At the time of the riot, Mr. Stirling said, there were 44 prison staff members at the facility. Until recently, the figure would have been fewer than 20, he said, but the prison recently began having night shift workers start work earlier and the day shift stay later, so they would both be on hand while prisoners are counted and locked up for the night.

Mr. Stirling, who served as chief of staff for Nikki Haley when she was governor, said his department is short-staffed, with 500 fewer front-line officers than it needs. But he said that recent budget increases for the department, supported by Ms. Haley and others, have allowed him to increase guards’ pay and begin closing the gap.

New sentencing and corrections policies enacted in 2010 have been easing some of the strain on the state prison system. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that the state’s prison population declined by 14 percent from 2009 to 2016, saving the state $491 million.

State Representative J. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat, said on Monday that the riot showed that more remained to be done. He and other lawmakers have sponsored a bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences on drug crimes, and would apply retroactively.

Mr. Rutherford said he did not support blocking cellphone signals at the prison, preferring a “managed” system that would allow corrections officials to track inmates’ phone use.

And he said the length of time it took to assemble enough guards to quell the riot was understandable, given how far out of the way the place was. “I’m a lawyer, and I go to Lee Correctional a lot,” he said. “It’s in the middle of Bishopville, and there’s simply nothing there.”

The corrections department released the names of the seven dead inmates, all of whom were serving time for violent crimes. Damonte Marquez Rivera had the longest sentence, life plus 90 years, for murder; Eddie Casey Jay Gaskins had the shortest, 10 years, for first-degree domestic violence.