Guard: Lieber Prison riot 'looked like a war zone'

Published: Feb. 28, 2012 at 6:28 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 29, 2012 at 11:01 PM EST
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RIDGEVILLE, SC (WCSC) - Lieber Correctional Institution Major Thierry Nettles will never forget the night of Jan. 18. On that night, hell broke loose at Lieber after an uprising in the Ashley dorm.

"It looked like a war zone, it was a melee, everything was torn up in the building," Nettles recalled.

It was a riot that began with no warning. Usually officers get an indication on the prison yard that something bad may be about to happen.

"I don't really think the temperature on the yard had changed any different than in the week's prior," Nettles said.

It turned out the temperature was at a fever pitch inside the Ashley dorm.

Officials don't know if one particular thing triggered the riot, even though there were rumors that inmates were angry about being fed bologna.

The riot happened on a night when there were only 27 officers on duty for a population of about 1,500 inmates.

"You're outnumbered always and that's never gonna change," Nettles explained.

The inmates assaulted two officers, took their keys and tore up everything inside the dorm unit.

"It was an opportunity that presented itself and they took full advantage of it," Warden Wayne McCabe said.

Special forces officers shot tear gas into the building to take control of the situation. Photos taken after the riot showed some of the damage.

"There wasn't a window in any of the offices and we got five on each side that were still intact. They broke out all the windows," Nettles said. "Pulled down the lights out of the ceilings, broke sprinkler heads."

McCabe took us into the prison's contraband room to show us what corrections officers seized after the riot.

There were table legs prisoners broke off to use as weapons and 105 homemade knives known as shanks. Fortunately, no one was hurt or killed.

McCabe said one reason for the thankful ending was the response from his officers who were able to isolate the riot to that one dorm.

The prison also had help from more than 200 law enforcement officers from the Tri-County area. Some of those officers were stationed on the rooftops to keep the riot from spreading and to make sure no one escaped.

"There was no chance those inmates were going to get out of the building, so we protected the public which is our primary concern," McCabe said.

Another concern was that the inmates would attack each other.

"That was the only disturbance I've ever seen where no inmates were actually assaulted by other inmates," Nettles said.

The warden had an answer for his critics who claim the response to the riot wasn't good enough.

"We did what we were supposed to do and we did it right," McCabe said.

At the same time, McCabe said lessons were learned.

"We always have to be on guard. We cannot let attention to detail, we cannot ever become complacent in what we do," he said.

The inmates who authorities said instigated the riot were transferred to other maximum security prisons and may face charges, according to officials.

Copyright 2012 WCSC. All rights reserved.