State Democrats call for more prison funding after deadly riot

State Democrats call for more prison funding after deadly riot
Lee Correctional Institution is a maximum security prison in Bishopville.
Rep. Todd Rutherford was critical of Gov. Henry McMaster's comments about the Lee Correctional riot. (Source: Live 5)
Rep. Todd Rutherford was critical of Gov. Henry McMaster's comments about the Lee Correctional riot. (Source: Live 5)

COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC/WIS) - State House conversations among lawmakers are turning to prison reform in the wake of a deadly riot that left seven inmates dead and 17 injured Sunday night.

The House Democratic Caucus held a news conference Tuesday to demand reforms in state prisons.

Rep. Todd Rutherford said he woke up to social media images Monday showing bodies of inmates apparently taken from inside the Lee County facility. Rutherford criticized was critical Tuesday of McMaster's comments.

"According to our governor, who must live watching 'Shawshank Redemption' every night, this is the way that prison life is supposed to be," Rutherford said. "Our governor is ill-informed and he needs to go because of it. This is not proper a working condition for anyone in South Carolina. This is not proper conditions for anyone, anyone who is incarcerated in this state."

At Monday's news conference from the State Department of Corrections, McMaster said many of those incarcerated at Lee Correctional Institution have violent records.

"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," McMaster said Monday.

The inmates killed ranged in age from 24 to 44.

"It's important for everyone to remember that just because someone is an inmate and may have done a horrible crime, you can't forget that they are a human being and they are serving their debt to society," Rep. Justin Bamberg said. "And as an inmate in the South Carolina Department of Corrections, you still have civil rights, and that is the right to be free from cruel or unusual punishment."

Lawmakers said the state is short some 600 corrections employees and called for more funding for the corrections department as well as finding a new revenue stream to make that funding possible.

"This is an issue of basic humanity," Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell. "When the state sends someone to prison, we are accepting responsibility not only for their incarceration but for their wellbeing. This is what separates a civil society from a barbaric society."

Norrell said Sunday night's incident makes the state look barbaric.

She said the state starts new corrections officers at approximately $29,000 per year, about $1,000 less than the starting salary for county correctional officers.

"We're asking people to put their lives on the line, and yet we are not letting them feel as if they are valued for doing so," she said.

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.

State prison leaders said Monday that money, territory and cell phones were what the riot was about.

Department of Corrections Director Brian Stirling repeated calls for the ability to block cell phone signals inside prison walls. Stirling said the state's inability to block those signals contributed to Sunday night's incident and represents an ongoing problem.

Bamberg said inmates were stabbed with shanks up to six inches in length.

"We can talk about cell phones, we can talk about other contraband, and we're not making excuses and saying it is okay for them to have that because it is not; but are we doing what we need to do to ensure that knives that are this long don't end up in the hands of inmates?" Bamberg said. "We have to do better. We've done enough talking, and it's time for us to do some action because lives are in the balance."

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.

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