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Experts: Understaffing contributed to slow response time during Lee prison riots

Watch inmates pace the prison floor with shanks during deadly SC riot

Cellphone video captures inmates holding shanks on a blood-covered prison floor during the violent riot that left seven inmates dead inside Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, SC on Monday, April 16.
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Cellphone video captures inmates holding shanks on a blood-covered prison floor during the violent riot that left seven inmates dead inside Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, SC on Monday, April 16.

Severe understaffing at Lee Correctional Institution likely hampered the prison's ability to quickly regain control of the facility during a riot that left seven people dead and 22 injured this week, experts say.

More staff wouldn't necessarily have prevented the disturbance, which began Sunday night and ended early Monday morning. But experts say it could have helped shorten the four-hour span between the first call for help — shortly after the first fight broke out at 7:15 p.m. — and when guards took back the first dorm at 11:30 p.m.

The fighting eventually spread to two other dorms. Authorities took back the final dorm at 2 a.m., the Department of Corrections has said.

"A four-hour response is a little beyond the pale," said Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. "The way to speed this up is to staff at proper levels."

One in four guard jobs at the prison is vacant, a persistent problem throughout the Department of Corrections amid a surge in violence. The Department of Corrections has said that 44 people were on duty when the fighting started. That staffing was higher than normal because the fights broke out during a shift change at Lee, which means staffers who were ending their shift were still there as others came on duty.

Four officers were staffing the dorm where the fighting started. The dorm houses 250 to 260 inmates.

A slow response time has a direct effect on the amount of damage inmates can inflict upon one another, said Alex Friedman, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoner advocacy group.

"The longer something goes on ... the more opportunity you have for someone to be hurt or killed," Friedman said. He said the amount of time to put down the riot was "unacceptable" and "unusual."

After the 7:15 fight, the guards were unable to control the situation so they retreated, called for help and waited for enough help to arrive so they could re-establish control of the dorm. The guards, who are unarmed, are trained to do that because if they try to break up a widespread disturbance, they are at risk of being severely injured, killed or taken hostage, the corrections department said.

The Department of Corrections would not say how many people were called in for backup or how many responded. Nor did the department provide details about the initial response time.

After the prison regained control over the first dorm, the second dorm was secured at 12:30 a.m. and the third at 2 a.m. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said the time lapse between the first dorm being retaken and the third is standard. Dawe and Jon Ozmint, a former S.C. corrections director, agreed.

"Sounds like (regaining control of the prison) happened in a reasonable amount of time once teams were on-site," Dawe said.

Another factor in the response time was the prison's location, Ozmint said.

Though a Google Maps search shows most South Carolinians can get to Lee Correctional Institution in around two hours, response team members must drive to the prison that employs them, get on a bus or van, and then be driven to the prison, he said.

Ozmint said South Carolina officials decided years ago to put prisons in poor, rural areas to boost employment. But that hasn't happened, and Ozmint called the approach "fool's gold."

"For these prisons that are out in the middle of nowhere, one- or two-hour response times are about as good as you are going to get," Ozmint said. Most of the response teams, which carry nonlethal riot control devices, are coming from Evans Correctional Institution or the Columbia area.

"To lose that many lives in that short of a time is a symptom of a bigger problem," said John Rakis, a consultant for the corrections industry.