South Carolina prison officials say a gang dispute and contraband cell phones likely played significant roles in a deadly brawl at Lee Correctional Institution outside Bishopville.
According to Bryan Stirling, S.C. Dept. of Corrections Director, the brawl began at 7:15 p.m. Sunday in one dorm at Lee Correctional, then spread to two other dorms over the next hour and a half.
Seven inmates were killed in the brawl, and 17 others suffered injuries that required hospitalization, Stirling says.
The assaults and murders played out over seven hours, prison officials say. Stirling says it wasn't until 11:30 p.m. that enough law enforcement and corrections personnel had assembled to safely enter the first dorm so injured people could be evacuated, and prisoners returned to their dorms.
Authorities entered the second dorm at 12:30 a.m., and the third at 2 a.m., after which the prison was finally re-secured, Stirling says. Normally it takes an hour to an hour and half to clear a dorm, Stirling says.
An inmate communicating via contraband cell phone told the Associated Press that corrections officers sealed one of the dorms and did not intervene during the fracas, even as inmates lied dead, dying or severely injured.
According to Stirling, the response by corrections officials was standard procedure, as prison staff is unarmed.
"We're not going to just send one or two officers in there," Stirling said. "We're going to gather a force that is safe for all our officers, and then we're going to go in and take that dorm back with force. ... We're not going to put our officers or other staff in harm's way. We gathered as many people as we could as quickly as we could, and went in as soon as we thought it was safe for our staff."
According to Stirling, there are 250-260 inmates in each dorm. At the time the ordeal began, Stirling says 44 members of both the first and second shift prison staff were in the facility helping do headcounts on inmates ahead of evening lockdown.
Stirling says a preliminary investigation shows the fight began among gang members fighting over territory, and that cell phones likely played a role, as well.
"This was all about territory," Stirling said. "This was about contraband. This was about cell phones. ... These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated."
Stirling and other U.S. prison officials have been imploring the Federal Communications Commission to allow prisons the authority to deploy cell phone signal jammers in order to thwart outside communication and criminal coordination.
"Until that's done, the folks that are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways from behind bars, which is not only dangerous inside our institutions; it's also dangerous outside our institutions," Stirling says. "It's a problem. It's not a South Carolina problem, it is a national problem, and until the industry starts taking it seriously, this is going to continue to happen."
Prison officials believe cell phones played a role in the spread of the violence to multiple dorms during the melee because chaos erupted in the second and third dorms well after it began in the first.
Stirling says investigators are looking into the possibility someone in the first dorm used a cell phone to communicate what was happening to people in other dorms.
"It happened in one dorm, and nobody left that dorm," Stirling said. "Soon therafter, other dorms found out about it."
Stirling says prison officials have a meeting planned for beginning of May to again discuss solutions to prisons in cell phones. Cell phone industry lobbyists have said blocking cell phone signals in prisons likely will require a court order.
The seven inmates killed have been identified by the S.C. Dept. of Corrections as:
- Raymond A. Scott, 28
- Michael Milledge, 44
- Damonte M. Rivera, 24
- Eddie C.J. Gaskins, 32
- Joshua S. Jenkins, 33
- Corey Scott, 38
- Cornelius Q. McClary, 33
Four of the men killed — Gaskins, Jenkins, McClary and Rivera — had connections to the Lowcountry, prison records show.