7 inmates dead, 17 hurt in South Carolina prison fight

Prisoners armed with homemade knives rioted for more than seven hours inside a maximum-security facility in Bishopville, S.C, leaving seven inmates dead and at least 17 seriously injured. It was the worst prison riot in more than two decades.

Incident at maximum security prison involved rival gang members, inmate suggests

A guard leaves the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., on Monday following a riot that lasted more than seven hours and killed seven prisoners. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Prisoners armed with homemade knives rioted for more than seven hours over gang territory and money inside a maximum-security facility in Bishopville, S.C, leaving seven inmates dead in the worst U.S. prison riot in more than two decades.

At least 17 prisoners were seriously injured at Lee Correctional Institution, South Carolina prisons chief Bryan Stirling said at a news conference.

The first fight started in a dorm about 7:15 p.m. Sunday and appeared to be contained before suddenly breaking out in two other dorms.

Cellphones helped stir up the trouble, and state officials urged the federal government to change a law and allow them to block the signals from prisoners' phones. 

"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated," Stirling said at a news conference. 

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, left, and South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling listen to a question from media during a news conference Monday. (Sean Rayford/Associated Press)

No prison guards were hurt. Stirling said they followed protocol by backing out and asking for support. It took several hours to restore order, but once a special SWAT team entered, the inmates gave up peacefully, he said.

Lee County Fire-Rescue said ambulances from at least seven jurisdictions lined up outside the prison to tend to the wounded. 

Lee County Coroner Larry Logan said that he arrived to a chaotic scene of fights everywhere at Lee Correctional Institution.

Logan said it appears most of the seven were killed by stabbing or slashing. He said others may have been beaten, but autopsies will be needed to confirm what caused their deaths.

These undated photos provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows, from top row from left, Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott and Damonte Rivera; bottom row from left, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary and Joshua Jenkins. The seven inmates were killed, and at least 17 prisoners wounded, in a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution. (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

State officials identified the slain inmates as: 

  • Raymond Scott, 28, who was serving a 20-year sentence for crimes including assault and battery.
  • Michael Milledge, 44, serving 25 years for drug trafficking.
  • Damonte Rivera, 24, serving life for murder.
  • Eddie Gaskins, 32, serving 10 years for domestic violence.
  • Joshua Jenkins, 33, serving 15 years for manslaughter.
  • Corey Scott, 38, serving 22 years for kidnapping.
  • Cornelius McClary, 33, serving 25 years for burglary.

The maximum-security facility houses about 1,500 inmates, including some of South Carolina's most violent and longest-serving offenders.

"It's an incredibly bad day in South Carolina," said Sen. Gerald Malloy, whose district includes Lee Correctional. "We failed. That's it."

Gang affiliations

A prisoner who saw the riot exchanged messages with The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to have a cellphone and fears retribution from other prisoners.

He said most of the inmates are affiliated with gangs.

 "I just saw three dead on the sidewalk outside of my unit. One guy is still alive and breathing, but just barely," the inmate said.

"The [corrections officers] never even attempted to render aid, nor quell the disturbance," he said. "They just sat in the control bubble, called the issue in, then sat on their collective asses."  

Stirling said the response teams entered as fast as they could.

"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," he said. 

It was the deadliest U.S. prison riot since 1993, when nine inmates and one corrections officer died at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, said Steve Martin, a longtime prisons expert and now the federal monitor for the consent decree involving New York City's Rikers Island jail complex.

Martin said staff shortages could have been a contributing factor in the riot.

"When high-security inmates start engaging each other and there aren't enough staff, it's hard to stop it," Martin said in a phone interview.

State data show there were 37 serious inmate assaults on prison employees last year, up from 21 in 2015.

Governor defends prison chief

South Carolina's governor is expressing support for his state prisons chief following the riots.

Razor wire protects the perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., where seven inmates are dead and 17 others injured after hours of fighting that broke out Sunday inside the maximum-security prison. (Sean Rayford/Associated Press)

Gov. Henry McMaster's spokesperson Brian Symmes told The Associated Press on Monday that the governor has "complete confidence" in Stirling's ability to lead the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

Stirling was appointed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley in 2013 to lead the state prison agency. When McMaster took over as governor last year, he kept Stirling, who had previously worked for him in the state Attorney General's Office.

McMaster said he was outraged the state can't jam cellphone signals in prisons.

"There are prisons around the country — state prisons, federal prisons all — that would be safer with this jamming," he said.

Stirling said officials planned to meet next month with the cellphone industry to talk about solutions, but "until that's done, the folks that are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways from behind bars."

In the South Carolina prisons system, at least 20 inmates have been killed by fellow prisoners since the start of 2017. Four inmates were killed last year by a pair of prisoners at Kirkland Correctional Institution.

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

With files from Reuters.