Lee Correctional Institution riot is deadliest in nation in 25 years

Fights renew call for cellphone jamming


After three simultaneous, deadly fights in separate dorms at Lee Correctional Institution on Sunday left seven inmates dead and 17 injured, a familiar call for the FCC to block cellphone signals in prisons was reiterated.

The maximum-security prison in Bishopville was secured at 2:55 a.m. Monday, nearly eight hours after the first altercation was reported about 7:15 p.m. Sunday, South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said at a news conference at the agency’s headquarters in Columbia on Monday afternoon.

“Our preliminary investigation indicates this was all about territory. It’s all about contraband. It’s all about cellphones,” Stirling said. “These folks are fighting over real money and real territory.”

Most of the slain inmates were stabbed or slashed with homemade knives, while the remainder were beaten to death, Lee County Coroner Larry Logan told The Associated Press on Monday.

This was the deadliest prison riot in the nation in 25 years. No prison guards or emergency responders were hurt.

“How else are you going to die in prison? They don’t have guns,” Logan said by phone as he went to a Florence hospital to finish identifying the dead.

The seven men who were killed were identified on Twitter by SCDC earlier Monday as Raymond Angelo Scott, 28; Michael Milledge, 44; Damonte Marquez Rivera, 24; Eddie Casey Jay Gaskins, 32; Joshua Svwin Jenkins, 33; Corey Scott, 38; and Cornelius Quantral McClary, 33.

They were serving sentences that ranged from 10 years to life for crimes ranging from trafficking cocaine and firearm charges to burglary, assault and battery, kidnapping and murder.

Stirling said the emergency teams that responded to the prison, which holds about 1,500 inmates, some of whom are South Carolina’s most violent and longest-serving offenders, came from across the state to assist the 44 corrections officers on duty at the time.

About an hour and 15 minutes after the first fight broke out, a second and third brutal altercation broke out in separate housing units. By 11:30 p.m., the first dorm was secured. The second and third were entered and secured by 12:30 a.m. and 2 a.m., Stirling said. Once a special SWAT team entered, the inmates peacefully surrendered.

Lee County and surrounding agencies’ EMS units responded to transport the injured to area hospitals.

Stirling said no one from the first dorm left after the fight broke out, meaning the indication is that cellphones were used to communicate the incident was going on between dorms.

An inmate who witnessed the riot said he saw bodies stacking up on each other and that correctional officers didn’t do anything to stop the violence or check on the injured, The Associated Press reported.

The prisoner exchanged messages with AP on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to have a cellphone and said he fears retribution from other inmates.

He told AP most of the inmates involved in the fights are or were affiliated with gangs and that several attackers taunted a rival gang member who was hurt.

Questions from the media about why it took hours to secure each dorm were answered with prioritizations of prison staff’s safety.

“There’s about 250-260 inmates in each dorm,” Stirling said. “We’re not going to just send one or two officers in there.”

He said prison guards are trained to try to stop any incident if they feel safe to but to retreat if they feel threatened and return with backup to take a situation back by force, if necessary.

“We’re not going to put our officers or other staff in harm’s way. We gathered as many people as quickly as we could to get in there safely,” Stirling said.

While there normally would have been only 16-20 on staff last night, Lee Correctional has been running double shifts for a few months. There were two per unit last night.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said his agency assisted in the response and will continue to investigate the incident to determine “how these deaths occurred.”

Both Stirling and Gov. Henry McMaster kept harking back to the need to block cellphone signals in prisons.

“Until that’s done, the folks who are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways inside the prison,” Stirling said.

At least 13 inmates throughout South Carolina have been killed by fellow prisoners since the start of 2017, AP reported. This marked the deadliest prison riot in the U.S. since nine prisoners and a guard died in 1993 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, Steve Martin, a consultant who helps the federal government monitor prison systems, told AP.

Two officers were stabbed at Lee Correctional in 2015. An inmate held a guard hostage for 90 minutes in March, and another killed a fellow prisoner in February.

In 2010, Capt. Robert Johnson was in charge of preventing contraband from entering the prison when an attempt was made on his life that was planned with a smuggled cellphone. He was shot at his home six times, had to be resuscitated several times and still has lingering effects from his wounds.

“Prisons are places for people who misbehaved on the outside. It’s not a surprise when we have violent events that take place inside a prison,” McMaster said.

He said it is unfortunate when these dangerous events happen but that taking away access to the outside via cellphones “will go a long way.”

“We cannot expect them,” he said, “to give up their violent ways when they go to prison.”