Editor’s note: This story was published in The State newspaper on Feb. 13, 1994
Fear gripped Dallas Knotts the first time he entered the tunnel.
He had heard the stories about the dangers lurking in the shadows of the quarter-mile stretch that defined life inside Central Correctional Institution.
With the chapel at one end and the inmates' quarters at the other, veterans considered the tunnel purgatory, a walk between "heaven and hell." The tunnel was the only way to get to living, working and eating areas.
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"You had nowhere to go and nothing to do, so people stabbed one another," said Knotts, who was at CCI for four years while serving life for murder. "You went down to the tunnel to rumble and have some fun."
So like the thousands of convicts who survived the rigors of CCI, he plunged daily into the tunnel's noisy sea of humanity.
The tunnel, scene of routine stabbings and a near-riot, is quiet now. Where hundreds of prisoners once hustled through the dank cylinder that was the prison's "Main Street," there is only eerie silence.
The huge granite and brick buildings, once home to the most vicious of South Carolina's criminals and condemned killers, no longer ring with the jarring clang and clatter of metal bars meeting locks. Only cats weave in and out of the shadows.
After 30 years, corrections officials finally got their way, closing down the state's oldest and most notorious penitentiary. Situated hard against the Columbia Canal, it was constructed in 1867 as a monument to prison reform. But when the gates closed for the last time Jan. 21, 20th century reformers called the closure long overdue. CCI had outlived its time.
Unlike modern prisons, the tunnel and other areas in CCI weren't designed to control inmates' movements and limit their conflicts. The prison's layout, with units haphazardly added over a century's time, and the large number of violent convicts in its population made it the state's most dangerous facility to operate.
But the mystique of CCI will linger even after its demise. Those who survived it — the inmates and guards and wardens — make up an odd and enduring fraternity.
"If you were a prisoner, you definitely didn't want to come here. The inmates viewed it as a hellhole," said Chuck Cepak, CCI's acting warden. "It was the passing of an era when CCI closed."
Sgt. D.L. Glenn will never forget the day he first went to work at CCI.
Shrouded in early morning mist, the prison looked like a medieval fortress, more suitable for the setting of a horror movie than a place to house and rehabilitate criminals, Glenn said.
"It is a very foreboding kind of place," he said. "I had to get over the initial shock. Everybody does."
A violent world
The tunnel introduced convicts to the violence and cruelty that dominated life inside CCI, said Knotts, 39. He is now housed at Lee Correctional Institution, the state's most modern and largest prison.
"I said, 'Oh, my God,' as soon as I stepped foot in CCI," Knotts said. "You felt like an animal in there."
The smell of sweat and smoke clogged the tunnel, which served the same role as the central yard in modern prisons. It lacked fresh air. Ceiling vents were pitch black from accumulated grime.
But it was the center of activity, a place to gossip or take revenge.
A riot nearly broke out in the tunnel in 1981, when 200 inmates jammed it after a white convict and a black convict fought over drugs. Armed with homemade knives, the prisoners prepared to battle on racial lines. Correctional officers removed the convicts who argued and quickly dispersed the others.
"The tunnel was a horrendous control problem," Cepak said.
But violence could erupt anytime and anywhere. The housing of repeat, violent offenders in crowded, crumbling units created a volatile atmosphere.
Correctional officers worked under constant stress, said Lt. S. Latta, who worked at CCI for 19 years.
Latta recalled one evening in 1983 when an inmate died in his arms after being stabbed. Five minutes later, another convict was stabbed in the tunnel. Then a fight broke out among inmates in the prison's mess hall.
"Every day was uncertain. It could be lovely one day and hell the next," he said. "It was like working in a ditch. You just tried to keep things from caving in."
Latta's skills were tested again in 1983 when an inmate on Death Row, which was housed at CCI until 1986, took him hostage.
The knife-wielding inmate, upset about how he was being treated, grabbed Latta and pulled him in his cell. Latta escaped when another prisoner gave him keys so that he could unlock the cell.
Intimidation a way of life
Convicts quickly learned that the rules of the outside world didn't apply in the bowels of CCI. Intimidation of new inmates started as soon as they walked through the prison's front door.
Veteran convicts demanded money or cigarettes from new inmates for protection, said Ernest Areheart, an associate warden.
"The older inmates were like a bunch of vultures when young inmates came in," Areheart, a 20-year CCI veteran, said. "You didn't want anybody to hurt you, so you needed protection. This was a hard place."
In the 12 years he ran CCI's maximum-security unit, Areheart saw 11 inmates commit suicide. One time, a prisoner sliced open his own stomach, causing his innards to spill on the cold, concrete floor. Areheart got a pan, gathered the convict's intestines in it and then shoved them back inside the body of the inmate, who survived.
CCI's officers developed a reputation over the years as the most aggressive in the state, the associate warden said. They had to be tough to handle some of South Carolina's most dangerous convicts, he said.
Many inmates who couldn't be controlled in other prisons were sent to CCI.
"We had some nasty people who could say 'no' and mean it," Areheart said. "Those inmates hated me, and I'm proud of that because they respected me."
A former inmate said he was terrified the entire month he stayed at CCI. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was transferred there after fighting with another inmate at Broad River Correctional Institution.
"I freaked when I saw the letters CCI on my transfer papers," said the former inmate, who was convicted of passing bad checks. "The place makes you feel like a dog thrown in a cage. I couldn't sleep while I was there."
Convicts grew tougher after serving "hard time" behind the prison's walls, said Jonathan Robinson, who served two stints at CCI. At one point, he stayed in the maximum security unit after assaulting a correctional officer.
Every day, inmates threatened to harm other convicts by assaulting, raping or stealing, Robinson said.
"Only the strong survived there. The weak got worn down physically and mentally," he said. "I had a little fear the first time I was sent to CCI. But I don't live in fear now."
Escapes and riots
Inmates in CCI developed a reputation for brazen escape attempts.
Most convicts believed they had nothing to lose, so escapes were a constant concern, said Cepak, the warden. On average, inmates at CCI were serving 23 years, compared the average of 12 years in other state prisons, he said.
A museum in the state's old Death House about the history of CCI displays a wide variety of weapons confiscated from inmates.
Pipes were made into firearms. Convicts sharpened spoons and bound them with tape to create "shanks" used in stabbings. Holes were made inside Bibles to conceal the weapons, including brass knuckles.
Perhaps the most unforgettable weapon smuggled into CCI was a package of plastic explosives that Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins used to blow apart a Death Row inmate.
The Florence County native was serving 10 life sentences for at least nine murders when he was recruited for the contract killing. Gaskins, 58, was sentenced to death for the murder and executed Sept. 6, 1991, in South Carolina's electric chair.
In 1937, six inmates killed the captain of the prison guard, J. Olin Sanders, while trying to break out of the prison. Their escape attempt failed and all six convicts were executed.
One of the most ingenious escapes occurred in March 1971. Four inmates widened a toilet drain in the prison's commissary building, then climbed down it and dug a 10-foot tunnel to a storm drain. The drain, which was 36 inches wide, led them to the Columbia Canal and freedom.
Cell Block 1, the original five-tier, granite-block building that housed South Carolina's first state penitentiary, was fertile ground for plots to escape or riot. The unit's inmates helped lead the worst riot in CCI's history.
Convicts angry over living conditions rioted for three straight days in April 1968, leaving at least 17 people injured. Many of the injured were inmates who had been beaten up after they refused to participate in the riot. Twenty-five prisoners also beat up two correctional officers.
Tear gas was used to subdue the inmates. Prison administrators called in State Law Enforcement Division agents, state troopers and Columbia firefighters to quell the riot.
Cell Block 1
The most primitive living area in CCI was Cell Block 1, where inmates occupied cells that were 5 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The cells have steel- grate doors that were kept locked with large padlocks.
Inmates had to volunteer to live in the unit and sign legal waivers because the building did not comply with fire and safety codes, Cepak said. For years, there was no fence around the walkways on the top four tiers, so inmates committed suicide by jumping down from their cell areas.
There was barely enough room to turn around inside the cells. Light was provided by one bulb dangling from an electrical socket.
Large roaches crawled around in the cells at night, inmates said. During thunderstorms, the building vibrated as rain and wind penetrated cracks between the granite blocks, the convicts said.
Other living areas weren't much better.
Most housing units were designed for 54 prisoners with a common bathroom that had showers, urinals and two large wash basins. Many window panes were broken, and the windows were so filthy that you couldn't see out them. Paint had peeled off the ceiling walls, particularly in corners.
A new state-of-the-art prison was constructed in Bishopville to replace CCI as South Carolina's largest prison. The 1,468-bed, $45 million Lee Correctional Institution opened last year.
Inmates from CCI were sent to different prisons throughout the state to create a better mix of repeat, violent offenders in the prison system.
But the prison's legacy will live on, said convict Knotts. Inmates will keep telling people how rough life was behind the large brick walls.
"When you went to CCI, you went into a hole," Knotts said. "The outside world forgot about you."