BISHOPVILLE, SC (WCSC/WIS) - Money, territory, and cell phones. State leaders say that's what the riot that killed seven inmates and injured another 17 at Lee Correctional Institution over the weekend was about.
"For years, inmates serving time in correctional facilities throughout South Carolina and the rest of the country have been smuggling cell phones into prisons, which in turn have been used to carry out crimes like the one last night at Lee Correctional," Representative Mark Sanford said in a statement. "These senseless and avoidable crimes are a reminder of how important it is to render contraband cell phones useless in our state prisons. This is something that the FCC must go ahead and change. I will continue to work toward that end."
"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they are incarcerated," SC Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said. He believes cellphones helped stir up trouble after an initial riot in one dorm had ended at the Bishopville prison.
"Preliminarily we believe this was gangs fighting over territory," Sterling said.
Gov. Henry McMaster held a news conference at the headquarters at the State Department of Corrections in Columbia to address the incident, which was the deadliest in the United States in the past 25 years.
"We know prison is a place for people who've misbehaved on the outside, so it's not a surprise when we have violent events take place in any prison in the country," he said. "We have rules, protocols, training, enormous effort to prevent these things. But it's unfortunate when they do happen."
The maximum-security facility in Bishopville houses about 1,500 inmates, some of South Carolina's most violent and longest-serving offenders.
The inmates killed ranged in age from 24 to 44. All but one of the inmates who died has a prison record that shows they were punished at some point for possessing or trying to possess a cell phone while in prison.
Stirling said the fights started in one unit at approximately 7:15 p.m. and appeared to be contained but approximately an hour and 15 minutes later, another fight broke out in two other dorms.
At 9 p.m., other teams were activated and agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division responded at 9:23 p.m.
Stirling says it took several hours to restore order, but once a special SWAT team entered, the inmates gave up peacefully.
Officers were able to enter the first dorm and take control at 11:30 p.m. They entered the second dorm at 12:30 a.m. Monday and entered the last dorm at 2 a.m. and took roll call.
Inmates describe a chaotic scene inside of bodies piling up with no medical attention for hours. Stirling responded to those claims, saying they can't send a few officers into pods that contain between 250 to 260 inmates.
"We wait until we have enough officers to go in and take It back by force," he said. Corrections officers are trained to stop a fight if they can safely do so, but otherwise to back out of the dorm and call for backup.
"We did everything we could in our power to get their quickly as possible," Stirling said.
SLED Chief Mark Keel said investigators are working to determine what happened and how the deaths occurred.
Stirling says there were only two guards in each unit and they followed their training to back out and ask for support if they are outnumbered.
The Department of Corrections identified the inmates who were killed:
- Eddie Gaskins, 32, who was serving 10 years for first-degree criminal domestic violence.
- Joshua Jenkins, 33, who was serving 15 years for voluntary manslaughter.
- Corneilus McClary, 33, who was serving 25 years for first-degree burglary.
- Michael Milledge, 44, who was serving 25 years for trafficking crack cocaine.
- Damonte Rivera, 24, who was serving life without parole for murder.
- Corey Scott, 36, who was serving 22 years for kidnapping and armed robbery.
- Raymond Scott, 28, who was serving 20 years for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
Four of those inmates had ties to the Lowcountry. Rivera is from Georgetown, Jenkins hails from Orangeburg and Berkeley Counties while Gaskins had roots in Berkeley County and McClary came from Williamsburg County.
"People in this prison, many have violent records," McMaster said. "We can't expect them to give up their violent ways when they go to prison. We try to minimize bad things from happening and learn from them."
Stirling said state officials have been asking the Federal Communications Commission for the power to block cell phone signals in prisons. Until that's done, he says, inmates will continue their criminal ways behind bars. He said prison leaders are partnering with the Lee County Sheriff's Office to fight cell phones and other contraband inside prison walls.
Officials believe cell phones were involved in this incident to communicate from one dorm to another. The initial incident happened in one dorm and was contained, but before long two other dorms knew about it and were participating, Stirling said.
Stirling said the problem with cell phones in prison and the inability for prison officials to block signals is a not only a South Carolina problem but a national problem.
He again called for the FCC to block cell phone signals in and around prisons.
"They are in prison because they've been judged as so dangerous they must be kept there," McMaster said. "Jamming cell phones would go a long way. We want to see it changed and changed as soon as possible."
South Carolina's governor is expressing support for his state prisons chief following riots at a maximum-security prison that killed seven inmates.
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes told The Associated Press on Monday that the governor has "complete confidence" in director Bryan 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.
Lee County Coroner Larry Logan told The Associated Press that he arrived to a chaotic scene of fights everywhere at Lee Correctional Institution.
Logan says it appears most of the seven were killed by stabbing or slashing. He says others may have been beaten, but autopsies will be needed to confirm what caused their deaths.
Prisons spokesman Jeff Taillon announced the grim outcome after State Law Enforcement Division agents helped secure Lee Correctional Institution around 3 a.m. Monday.
Taillon said no officers were wounded in the incident.
Lee County Fire/Rescue said ambulances from at least seven jurisdictions lined up outside the prison to tend to the wounded. The local coroner's office also responded.
The prison has seen violent episodes in the past. Two officers were stabbed in a 2015 fight at the prison. One inmate killed another in February.