An hours-long deadly fight between inmates at a maximum-security prison in South Carolina was the result of a gang war fought over territory and money that was fueled by the use of cell phones thrown over the fence or smuggled inside, prison officials said at press conference Monday. The violent altercation at the Lee Correctional Institution, which erupted Sunday evening and raged for seven hours, claimed seven lives and injured 17 more in what is the deadliest prisoner riot in the U.S. in 25 years. No prison employees or law-enforcement were injured.
“What we believe is that this was all about territory, this was about contraband, this was about cellphones,” Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said Monday. “These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they’re incarcerated.” Inmates attacked one another with homemade knives, according to the Associated Press, as the violence broke out around 7:15 p.m. Sunday and lasted until 2:55 a.m. Monday morning at the 1,600-inmate facility. An inmate who witnessed the violence told the AP: bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other.”
“The inmate who spoke to AP said that many cell door locks were already broken before the riot and that he and other prisoners roamed around freely at the prison in Bishopville, located 40 miles east of Columbia,” according to the AP. “Hours after the violence started, no correctional officers or medical personnel attended to the dead or dying, he said.” The seven prisoners that were killed were serving sentences ranging from 10 years to life for crimes including murder, burglary, and drug trafficking. The youngest inmate killed during the melee was 28; the oldest was 44 years old. The riot was the latest in a string of violent incidents in the South Carolina prisons system; at least 13 other prisoners have been killed in the state’s penitentiary system since the beginning of 2017. For the Lee correctional facility, which is currently filled to 96 percent of capacity, recent incidents have been particularly disturbing. From CNN:
Last month, inmates reportedly overpowered an officer for more than an hour and took control of one side of a housing unit. In February, inmate Robert Odell Brown was killed by another inmate at Lee Correctional Institution. Last November, another dispute between two prisoners led to the stabbing death of inmate Larry Rainey. And last July, inmate Christian D. Ray died from injuries suffered during a fight.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster repeated a call Monday for the Federal Communications Commission to allow authorities to the jam cellphone signals in prisons to keep gangs from continuing their operations behind bars. “FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has toured the Lee facility [and said] he is in favor of finding ways to rid prisons of illegal cellphones but concerned about the risks of also blocking legitimate wireless users,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The FCC said Monday that it has adopted new rules that will allow for quicker deployment of interdiction systems in prisons, and is studying additional tools for combating contraband phones.”
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus