29 inmates charged 2 years after South Carolina prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution


COLUMBIA (AP) — Nearly 30 inmates were charged in connection with a riot at a South Carolina prison in 2018 that left seven inmates dead and 22 injured, the state's attorney general announced Thursday.

The charges were filed against 29 inmates at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, Attorney General Alan Wilson said during a news conference. Three were charged with murder. Eighteen others were charged with first-degree assault and battery by a mob resulting in death.

One of the inmates charged with assault and battery by mob is Michael Juan Smith. He is known for a shooting that paralyzed a University of South Carolina student in 2013.

The correctional institution, which is located about 56 miles (90 kilometers) east of Columbia, is a high-security prison that houses violent offenders and inmates who show behavioral issues.

Prosecutors said the violence erupted between rival gangs after an inmate, Michael Milledge, was killed. Gang members at the prison then retaliated against the inmate who killed him, The Post and Courier reported. The use of illegal cellphones to communicate led to the "mob riot," Wilson said.

"The reason we are here today is because of these cellphones," Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said Thursday. The phones are "essentially a weapon in inmates' hands," he said.

A state audit had found multiple failures by prison officials in their handling of the violence that night. Stirling said last year that he has implemented security measures to detect cellphones brought in either by visitors or inmates.

The nearly eight hours of killings and chaos at the prison in April 2018 was the nation's deadliest prison riot in almost 25 years. All of Lee's 1,200 inmates were put on lockdown for weeks after it happened.

Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest Finney III called the investigation into the mayhem "very complicated." He said inmates had destroyed the prison's videotaping system so there wouldn't be evidence.

Some inmates were reluctant to share what they'd seen, fearing retribution, and others refused to cooperate or destroyed evidence, officials said. The indictments that were issued by the state grand jury were "done professionally and took a long time," Finney said.

Officials indicated more charges might happen.

Violence at the prison hasn't gone away. An inmate was killed there two weeks ago, and an officer was stabbed earlier this year.