South Carolina’s Prison Riot: The Questions That Should Be Asked

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Lee Correctional

South Carolina prisons are among the nation's most troubled. A riot last year at Lee Correctional Institution (above) left 7 dead and 17 injured. Photo by Naveed Rauf via Flickr

Seven dead bodies tend to focus the attention. But don’t count on it — not if they are dead men behind bars.

In South Carolina.  In an election year.

Seven inmates were stabbed and beaten to death and 17 injured in eight hours of nightmarish rioting at South Carolina’s largest and most violent prison Sunday night. Seven deaths are shocking, but not surprising to anyone paying close attention to what is going on inside the state’s prisons.

Even as the inmate population has declined, a product of the much-ballyhooed prison reform, violence behind the prison walls has exploded.

And Gov. Henry McMaster, facing a tough primary fight against a gaggle of Republicans each trying to out-Trump the other, was not about to sound soft on crime or criminals in the wake of the mayhem.

He declared: “It is not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside the prison—any prison in this country.”

If only inmates could vote.

The massacre at Lee Correctional, a maximum security prison in tiny Bishopville, puts South Carolina well ahead of 2017’s pace, which was the deadliest year on record. Eighteen inmates died in the state prisons last year—12 of them murdered by other inmates, six by suicide — according the state Department of Corrections.

The body count, which has risen four years in a row, is at 13 so far this year. In 2009, there were two deaths.

These are inconvenient numbers for the Legislature and the prison system. (And it took a Freedom of Information filing to extract the basic information about how many people are dying in the prisons.) That is because it detracts from the state’s preferred narrative that it is cutting the inmate population—and costs—through reform.

“South Carolina has led the nation in criminal justice reform,” state Sen. Chip Campsen, a co-author of 2010 prison reform legislation, wrote in a commentary for the Post and Courier last year. He said he was inspired to act by his faith.

The inmate count is, in fact, down 14 percent in five years, dropping the state’s incarceration rate to 19th in the nation from 11th as it has expanded alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. But the violence has spiked, too, as the percentage of violent prisoners left behind has risen.

Consider: There were more than 250 inmate-on-inmate assaults that required taking prisoners to outside hospitals in 2016 and 2017, double the previous two years. Attacks on correctional officers also increased. Shivs are the weapon of choice.

Prison officials, as always, attributed the growing violence to contraband cell phones, which allow inmates to continue to fight over turf and money on both the inside and the outside.

Getting cell phones out would help stem the violence—in South Carolina and in prisons across the country.

But getting more correctional officers in the prisons would help even more. That costs money the Legislature is unwilling to spend. One in four jobs are vacant, leaving the gangs to fill the vacuum.

Willie McCray knows this all too well.

“Gangs run the prisons,” McCray, who qualifies as an expert, having spent four years in prison on drug charges, told me last year.

McCray was playing checkers in his dorm at Evans Correctional, a medium-security prison in Bennettsville, when he was leveled from behind by an inmate wielding a so-called “lock-in-a-sock,” which is every bit as brutal as it sounds. He suffered a ruptured eye socket, a fractured cheek bone and a concussion. He still wears special glasses and suffers from headaches and memory loss.

“There just aren’t enough guards,” said McCray, who is now out of prison. There was a single officer overseeing 60 inmates that day, and she was nowhere in sight. No one, as usual, was charged.

South Carolina’s prisons, like prisons everywhere, are also filled with the mentally ill. In 2016, the Department of Corrections settled a decade-old class-action suit that committed the state to upgrade mental health treatment. It has made progress, but has far to go to meet the court-ordered requirements. The recent spike in suicides—one 22-year-old died by swallowing paper clips—indicates there is much work to be done.

Last year, South Carolina prison violence became national news when four inmates at Kirkland Correctional in Columbia, the state capital, were strangled and beaten to death. Denver Simmons, convicted of the cold-blooded killing of a mother and her teenaged son, later said he and another prisoner killed the four to get the death penalty rather than spend a lifetime in prison.

Lee Correctional

Lee Correctional Institution. Photo courtesy South Carolina Department of Corrections

This year, it’s Lee Correctional.

With almost 1,600 inmates, Lee was the scene of inmate takeovers in 2012 and 2013. It has recorded 11 murders in the last three years and more serious assaults than any prison in the system. It had two suicides in two months last year.

Lee is located in Bishopville, a dirt-poor speck of a town best known as the home of “The Lizard Man,” an alleged seven-foot reptile monster that locals say rose up from Scape Ore Swamp. After Lizard Man’s first sighting in 1988, the town’s chamber of commerce was thrilled with the national attention. I’m betting it’s not so thrilled with the new headlines.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina House of Representatives had a moment of silence for the seven dead inmates at Lee. It was a nice gesture, but the state’s prisoners need more than gestures. It’s past time for the Legislature to launch a real investigation — independent of the corrections department — into the causes and cures for the mounting death toll.

Steve Bailey

Steve Bailey

Managing some of society’s most violent misfits, many of them mentally ill, is a thankless job. But when the state takes someone’s freedom, it also assumes the responsibility for their safety.

Even if they can’t vote.

See also: Prison Deaths Pile up in South Carolina: Does Anybody Care?

Steve Bailey, a former Boston Globe columnist, is a contributing columnist for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. Follow him @ sjbailey1060. He welcomes readers’ comments.

2 thoughts on “South Carolina’s Prison Riot: The Questions That Should Be Asked

  1. Why are US prisons so often more violent than those in other developed countries? Are Americans somehow more violent people? I don’t think so. But tackling prisoner violence seriously means looking at why. That is a lot harder than adding more staff or trying harder to remove mobile phones. Are US citizens or their politicians prepared to look at their endemic racism, their hatred and contempt for poorer people, their disgust for illegal immigrants, their often-corrupt and violent police forces? And to examine with compassion and understanding why black males offend rather than have aspirations for a better life.

  2. Thank you for your reporting from the prisons. Having spent more than twenty years volunteering in the Nebraska prisons–and teaching Restorative Justice classes there the last couple of years–I’d suggest that there are some potential “Boy Scouts” there and that prisoner self-betterment groups can become an alternative to gangs as a way to gain respect within the system. The leadership and potential I see–and the real good will–impress even prison staff. Strengthen the clubs and institute restorative justice work. It sure won’t solve all the problems, and it particularly won’t substitute for real mental health support, but it can help change the culture.

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