COLUMBIA, S.C. — Twenty South Carolina prisoners have been killed at the hands of fellow inmates in the past 16 months. The staggering amount of violence, which includes the gang-fueled bloodshed that left seven prisoners dead and 22 injured this week at Lee Correctional Institution, has some legislators calling for more oversight and transparency at the state Department of Corrections.
At a news conference, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said officers stormed in and took the first of three dorms back from rioting prisoners about four hours after the melee began. He said the officers were assembled at the rural prison as quickly as possible and went in only when it was safe to do so.
After the institution was back under control, it then took more time to get injured inmates to hospitals. The prison is located 40 miles east of Columbia.
"It shouldn't take five hours to get in there and put some water on these fires," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat and lawyer whose clients include the families of several inmates who were attacked in previous instances.
Contraband cellphones and staffing shortages are often blamed for many of the department's woes. Stirling, who oversees 21 prisons and more than 19,000 inmates, has said he's hired some of the 500 corrections officers he needs, but stresses the need for funding more officers.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, whose district includes Lee Correctional, said the government has a responsibility to keep the prison population safe and thinks lawmakers need to look at whether cost savings in corrections has been efficient.
"The burden comes back to the General Assembly, what are you going to do?" he said.
Stirling - who served as then-Gov. Nikki Haley's chief of staff before she appointed him to lead the prisons in 2013 - said his No. 1 security threat is cellphones, which gives inmates unfettered communication allowing them to commit crimes inside and outside of prison. He said the riot started Sunday night as a gang war over territory, money and illegal items such as cellphones.
Stirling has urged the Federal Communications Commission to allow the prison to block or jam cellphone signals to prevent inmates from using them.
Violence at Lee and other institutions throughout South Carolina is not surprising, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster noted at the news conference. McMaster echoed Stirling's call for the ability to jam cellphones in prison but didn't propose any other substantive alternatives. "We do the best we can," the governor said.
From 2001 to 2014, an average of 60 inmates died annually in state prisons across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2017, a dozen South Carolina inmates were killed by other inmates.
"That's staggeringly out of proportion," said John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor who tracks prison data. "It makes a prison that is supposed to be a secure facility - a place with no weapons, a place where you can't leave - as dangerous as living in the most dangerous city in America."
In February, an inmate killed a fellow prisoner at Lee, where this week's attack took place among inmates armed with homemade knives used to slash and stab rival gang members. An inmate stabbed two officers in 2015. At Kirkland, another maximum-security prison, two inmates killed four prisoners last year in under an hour.
For the past few months, The Associated Press has been communicating with a Lee prisoner who used a contraband cellphone to offer insight into life behind bars. He said inmates there roam freely, have easy access to cellphones and drugs, and are often left to police themselves.
The inmate spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because his cellphone is illegal and he fears retribution from other prisoners. He described a facility run by gangs, and guards who take a hands-off approach because they fear for their own safety.
In the most recent incident, he told AP that officers stayed in a control booth for hours Sunday night, waiting for backup as inmates lay dying in pools of blood. That echoes earlier anecdotes he shared about what happens whenever gang fights break out.
"The Crips and Bloods had a confrontation just a few feet from my cell door and, when the knives, machetes, axes, pipes and body armor came out, the cops were nowhere to be found," he wrote in February.
To get away from the fighting, the inmate said he stays in his cell. But the door lock has been broken for months, so he said he and others jam materials into the lock to try to keep others from coming in.
"ALL of the doors to the cells are broken," the inmate wrote. "At any time, I can let myself out of my cell, to do whatever it is that I would want to do."
Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins and Christina Myers in Columbia contributed to this report.