[Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2013. For recent news about the April 15 and 16 , 2018 riot at Lee Correctional Institution, please see this article.]
As he entered a cell in the most dangerous dorm of the state’s most dangerous prison, warden Michael McCall wrinkled his nose.
“That’s reefer, I think.”
McCall looked up to see an open vent, one that connects to three other cells. The vents are supposed to be sealed — but not at Lee Correctional Institution. McCall reached inside and retrieved what looked like a fishing net with some twine tied to it.
“They’re fishing,” McCall said as he threw the net down on a counter. “If we come in here and find something, they can fish it over to the next person.
To make Lee and other prisons safer, Gov. Nikki Haley has proposed a state budget that includes an additional $18 million for the Department of Corrections. Haley’s proposed budget includes a 3 percent raise for corrections officers at maximum-security prisons, the first time the Republican governor ever has recommended a salary increase for state workers. And it includes more than $3 million in maintenance repairs, including sealing the vents at Lee.
Haley’s proposal is in response to the violence at Lee, she said.
Since April, inmates have taken over parts of the prison twice, capturing two outnumbered corrections officers and stabbing one. Wielding keys they made out of sawed-off parts of fiberglass shower stalls, inmates had slipped out of their dorms at night to pick up packages of drugs and cellphones that outsiders had thrown over the fences. Inmates used cellphones to coordinate the attacks on officers.
Haley is touting Lee Correctional as the poster child for her pitch to make the state’s prisons more secure.
She said she visited the prison last year against the advice of SLED chief Mark Keel, who is in charge of the governor’s security. She mentioned the prison during the news conference announcing her executive budget in December. And she invited Lee warden McCall to her State of the State address last month, where she called him “one of the unsung heroes of South Carolina state government.”
“I firmly believe that the requests are justified,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House budget subcommittee that oversees the Corrections Department’s budget. “Which brings us to the real question: Can we afford it?”
‘We can’t overlook this’
South Carolina has $349 million in new money to spend next year, but it has $453 million in new spending needs, according to Les Boles, director of the Office of State Budget.
Health care is the biggest need. The state’s Medicaid program — health insurance for the poor and disabled — needs an additional $193 million. And the state must pay at least another $80 million to cover the rising cost of its workers’ health insurance.
Compared to those needs, spending more on prisons historically has not been a popular idea in the Legislature.
For years, Haley said in her State of the State speech, lawmakers have viewed giving money to prisons as giving money to prisoners — something that can be used against them politically. But Haley wants to change that belief, using the riots at Lee to convince lawmakers that more money is needed to keep officers safe, not give an inmate a TV.
“What really jarred me the most was watching the video of that officer being kicked and beaten and left for dead and thrown in a janitor’s closet,” Haley said, referring to the most recent riot at Lee in September.
“When you see the video I saw, when you know we had no way to get to him to help him, when you know that happened to be a place where we had a camera and the quality of that camera was not good, it’s enough to affect you in a way that you say, ‘We can’t overlook this. We can no longer say we are not going to address this.’”
Keeping contraband out
Lee Correctional does not have a guard tower. Haley wants the state to spend $236,900 to build two of them.
“The mission is different,” McCall said. “The mission has always been to keep (inmates) from crossing over (the fence). The mission now is to keep folks from throwing stuff over my fence.”
Officers drive the perimeter of the prison looking for contraband, but it is easy for people to avoid them. Last year, McCall got creative and put 100 beehives around the edge of the prison’s fence, installing signs that read: “Danger! Bees. Keep Out.”
McCall said the guard towers will help officers watch for people throwing contraband over the fence, mostly drugs and cellphones. That, he hopes, will make the prison safer.
In June, inmates attacked an officer as he was escorting a nurse through the prison’s lockup unit, where inmates are held for disciplinary reasons. Inmates used cellphones to call 911 and give police a list of their demands. Officials freed the officer after storming the prison with tear gas.
The nurse escaped thanks to a quick-thinking officer in a control room who unlocked one of the unit’s side doors.
“Can you imagine? It’s horrible. The worst-of-the-worst inmates you’ve got, and I’ve got a female in there? What could have happened?” McCall said. “And I thought (the officer) was dead a couple of times. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my career.”
‘A dog in a cage’
Most of the riots have taken place in Lee Correctional’s Chesterfield Unit. It has two floors, with prison cells surrounding a large common area. Before McCall arrived in April, the unit had been locked down for nearly four years, meaning inmates never left their cells. But McCall said that “basically treats them like a wild animal. You’re creating a bigger problem.”
McCall let one wing of the dorm out of lockup. One morning last week, inmates were milling around tables playing chess, dominos and cards. Some watched the four TVs mounted on the wall. One inmate stopped listening to his music player to approach a reporter.
“I’ve been here nine months, I only got six months left, but within six months (McCall has) changed this whole place around. ... There ain’t as much stabbing and killing,” said the inmate, who prison officials did not want named. “He’s giving us more freedom.
“You ever had a dog before? You put a dog in a cage in a little small room ... for three or six months. You let that dog out, what’s the first thing he’s going to do? He’s going to run wild. Giving us freedom ... it’s relieving a lot of stress.”
But McCall said it has been difficult to convince his staff to take the unit off lockdown, “given the reputation of this dorm.”
It is the same dorm where, in September, inmates hid behind a corner and attacked an officer as he was returning from the prison yard, stabbing him, McCall said. The officer was the only person on duty in the dorm that holds 256 inmates.
“It affects all officers, especially when we have somebody taken hostage,” said Sgt. Karen Gregg, an officer at Lee Correctional for four years. “When we hear about it, our morale goes down a little bit because that’s one of us. And it could happen to any of us.”
It has been difficult to convince people to work at Lee Correctional.
Salaries for corrections officers start at $25,000 a year, and McCall said last week the prison has 54 vacancies.
That is why Haley is proposing a 3 percent raise for all officers at maximum-security prisons — a raise that would cost taxpayers an additional $1.7 million a year.
But, McCall said, “I don’t want just sheer bodies, I want quality people.”
Better food, fewer riots?
Haley’s budget proposal for the prison system also includes $2.5 million for security systems, $1 million for inmate security and $40,000 for weapons replacement.
There also is almost $500,000 for ovens and stoves.
You would think prison food should be bad. After all, it is prison, not a resort. But Haley and McCall look at prison food as a vital part of prison security.
Jeffrey Goodman, 41, has spent 19 years in prison, including three stints at Lee Correctional.
Goodman said that when inmates are locked down in their dorms — as often happens — they eat cold cuts every day. “Cheap meat,” he said.
“It made me nauseous. I’d eat the bread if I could,” he said. “It makes the whole thing bad if you can’t eat good.”
Warden McCall said bad food is one of the primary reasons that inmates riot. It is why McCall said he often eats meals in the prison cafeteria with the inmates — “to let them know I’m willing to ... eat the same food.”
However, the ovens and stoves at Lee Correctional have fed 1,800 inmates three meals a day for 20 years.
“We have difficulty in making sure we keep the meals at proper temperatures because of some of the older equipment that we have,” said Marlon Fedd, food services director at Lee. “When we spoke to the governor a few months ago, that’s one of the issues we talked about.”
‘Band-Aid on bullet wounds’
Rep. Pitts, the Republican budget subcommittee chairman, said he is pushing hard for the state to spend more money on prisons. Haley has met with him to discuss the issue.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said after Haley’s State of the State address that the Department of Corrections would be a priority in next year’s state budget. He said lawmakers focused last year on restoring money that had been cut from the budget of the State Law Enforcement Division. This year, he said, would be the Department of Corrections’ turn.
House Democrats say they, too, support spending more money on prisons.
But state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, compared it to “putting a Band-Aid on bullet wounds.”
The real issue, said the House minority leader, is: “We continue in South Carolina to believe that locking people up is going to solve everything.”