SC Prisons Director: Battles Over Money, Territory Fueled Riot

Apr 16, 2018

It appears that gang battles over money and territory were behind the rioting that left seven inmates dead and at least 17 others injured Sunday night at a prison east of Columbia, South Carolina Prisons Director Bryan Stirling said. He said cell phones, snuck into the prison, helped stir up the trouble at the maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina.

“What we believe from the initial investigation was that this was all about territory, this is about contraband, this is about cell phones,” Stirling said. “You’ve heard us talk about this over and over again, these folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they’re incarcerated.”

Stirling said fighting spread between inmates in three dorms. He said it took several hours to restore order, but once a special SWAT team entered, the inmates gave up peacefully.

No prison guards were hurt in Sunday’s rioting.  

Andrew Knapp, an editor at the Post and Courier of Charleston, reports on crime and the state prison system. He joined WFAE’s Mark Rumsey on “All Things Considered” to talk about the riot. Here are the highlights: 

Do we know what caused the riot?

We heard the officials describing these territory issues arising between prisoners. They described fighting over territory in prison or in the outside world, in which they are coordinating criminal activity through the use of cell phones. We’ve seen over the years the same problem pop up, and so it was kind of expected for officials to come out and say this is the source of the issue. 

Several hours elapsed between the time the rioting first broke out and the time that authorities broke in. Why did it take so long? 

I think they tend to be very methodical in how they go about taking back a prison in this situation because they don't know what to expect. They could be met with prisoners with weapons.

I know there was a lot of frustration among members of the public and among family members of the inmates incarcerated there - that their loved ones were hurt or dying in those hours that the authorities were planning their route to take back the prison. 

Did understaffing contribute to the incident Sunday night?

They said they had 44 officers there on staff at the time, which is actually elevated compared to what they've had in the past. In the past, the prison director today talked about having 16 or 20 - less than half of what they had Sunday night. But vacancies are rampant throughout the prison system in South Carolina. I think it's mirrored in prison systems throughout the country, too.

In the past year they've actually gained some [prison staff throughout the system]. They've been able to add about 100 staffers beyond their previous staffing level for 2016. They're gaining some ground, but they still have probably more than 25 percent of their positions vacant - which equates to about 600 jobs.

South Carolina has been trying to get permission from the FCC to jam cell phone signals for inmates so they won’t be able to use them, but have been unsuccessful. Why is getting this approved so difficult?

The state, even though it’s a government in its own right, is dealing with the federal government - who has set regulations about who can actually jam signals on the public airwaves. It's become a conflict with the cell phone companies because the cell phone companies don't want to limit those signals for legitimate users around prisons.

What stands out about the rioting at the Lee prison or the response from the state?  

Last year, we had 12 homicides in South Carolina prisons - seven more than the previous record of five, which was actually set in 2016 and the year before that. There's definitely an increasing level of violence behind bars and I think there's agreement from a lot of members of the public that something has to be done about it. 

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