You wouldn’t know it by driving by. Most young folks don’t know it ever existed.
But the bustling CanalSide neighborhood – a 700-unit apartment community now being completed at the foot of Taylor Street adjacent to the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park – was once a nightmare of a prison called Central Correctional Institution.
Born of a prison reform movement that swept the country before the Civil War, CCI was hailed as a relief from “medieval dungeons.” But by the time it closed in 1994, it was scorned as hopelessly antiquated, a relic in the world of high-tech prisons of the late 20th century.
In 1999 when it was demolished, those associated remembered it as the closest thing to hell on Earth. One inmate at the time said that if the walls could talk, they would scream.
Roughly located off Huger Street between Blanding Street and Klapman Boulevard, the prison held the state’s most dangerous inmates in hideous overcrowded conditions. It’s demise was national news, with The New York Times calling it “the prison from Hell.”
Bob McAlister, a Columbia public relations executive and former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell, spent every Friday afternoon and evening there for 10 years holding Bible studies and counseling death row inmates.
He remembered the rows and rows of bunks stacked five stories high. The intense, stifling heat in the summer. Inmates throwing urine and feces on him as he walked through the worst ranges. And most vividly, he remembered the smell.
“It reminded me of the torture chambers of England,” he said. “It was dark, it was dank and it stunk. And there were vermin of all kinds. It was the thing of horror movies.”
Here are some facts:
▪ CCI was the state's first penitentiary, a castle-like structure built in 1867.
▪ The five-story Cell Block One, the site's oldest building, initially had no roof. Inmates slept on straw mats exposed to the elements and used ladders to reach their cells.
▪ Convicts built the prison with granite blocks taken from a Fairfield County quarry. The blocks were transported to the site on barges along the Broad River and the Columbia Canal.
▪ In CCI's 127-year history, about 80,000 convicts were housed there. It was overcrowded with 1,300 inmates when it closed in 1994.
▪ Towards the end of the 20th Century, it averaged a stabbing every 10 days
▪ CCI was home to the state's Death House, whenever executions were legal throughout the 20th century. Convicts were hanged in the counties where they committed their crimes until 1912, when the state installed an electric chair, called Old Sparky.
▪ The Death House was the site of 243 executions between 1912 and 1986. Forty-eight whites and 195 blacks were executed there. The youngest, a black boy from Clarendon County accused of killing two white girls in the 1940s, was 14.
▪ One of the most ingenious escapes was in 1971, when four inmates widened the toilet drain in the chapel to reach the Columbia Canal.
▪ One of the most notorious prisoners was Pee Wee Gaskins, a serial killer, who in 1991, while serving 10 consecutive life sentences for murder, was put to death for constructing a bomb that killed another inmate in his cell.
▪ Convicts started manufacturing license plates and road signs in 1930. The Prison Industries building was the site of many attempted escapes, including several in which prisoners tried to fly using artificial wings.
▪ The worst riot, in 1968, lasted three days and left 17 injured.
▪ Prisoners were allowed to exercise later in the 20th Century. The sight of prisoners walking in the prison yard and playing on the prison ball field became commonplace before CCI was closed.