Murder on the inside: Widow speaks out after inmate's killing

RIDGEVILLE, SC (WCSC) – A man sentenced to life behind bars was forced to leave early – in a body bag. The inmate was not the first to die at Lieber Prison and now his widow is speaking out for the first time.

Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County is one of largest prisons in South Carolina. The jail is home to more than 1,000 inmates including some of the most dangerous criminals in the state.

In 2007, 39-year-old Denen Johnson was sentenced to Lieber after being convicted of a North Charleston armed robbery. He was sentenced to life without parole, a prison term that would only last three years.

"I was at my sister's house and I just dropped the phone, broke down and cried," Shelly Johnson recalled of the moment she found out her husband was killed.

Denen Johnson was stabbed to death in a dorm at Lieber in November 2010 and no one has been arrested for the crime. Johnson's widow is speaking out for first time since her husband's murder. Shelly Johnson believes her husband was targeted for vengeance.

State corrections officials declined to comment on Denen Johnson's murder and a SLED spokeswoman said that the investigation is ongoing.

A corrections department spokesman did say that on the night of Johnson's murder there was one correctional officer assigned for the 103 inmates housed in that wing. The spokesman said that is standard operating procedure for the night shift at Lieber.

[See a complete list of staff to inmate ratios across South Carolina prisons]

"I just trusted the prison system to allow him to do his time, to be punished for the crime, not to be murdered inside the walls," Shelly Johnson said.

Denen Johnson served a sentence for another charge in 2000 and was released in 2003. He went back to Lieber in 2007. Johnson had been disciplined 15 times between July 2000 and September 2010. The infractions included striking an inmate and threatening to inflict harm. Officials say they don't know if Johnson's bad behavior was a factor that got him killed.

"If America can empower an entire army to fight a war, why can't we empower our guards and the people that we pay to deter the weapons used and the weapons being made, and the violence and the pain it causes when the inmates are killed?" Shelly Johnson asked.

There have been five murders at Lieber since 2006, the most of any state prison. That number compares with three killings at Lee Correctional Institution and only one each at Broad River, Perry and McCormick.

Johnson wants to know why her husband became a statistic.

"I would like to see the weapons removed from the prisons," Johnson said. I would like to see no one else die the way he died."

Johnson also said she hopes someone on the inside will come forward and say who murdered her husband. Unfortunately, that may be a long shot in a place where snitching could get you silenced for good.

Corrections officials want to point out that assaults at Lieber dropped from 104 in 2009 to only 62 in 2010.

For a more in depth look at the number of assaults at all maximum security state prisons, click here.

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