Lee Correctional inmates 'can get anything they want' from the outside, neighbors say

The dirt road winds through a patch of pine trees planted years ago in tight rows. The road is rough, with pot holes the size of backyard fish ponds filled with muddy water.

It leads to two rental homes owned by Alexander Boyd, the mayor of Bishopville. And he and neighbors claim that it is a main artery for criminals to smuggle drugs, cellphones and other contraband into the Lee Correctional Institution by throwing them over the fence.

"I lose tenants because they see (shady) people who throw things into the prison.," Boyd said. “We're not so concerned about the people in the prison; it's the people outside that concern us."

Boyd carefully maneuvers his pickup truck around the road hazards and avoids a couple of old tires tossed on the side of the road.

"I picked up tires here last week," he said, shaking his head. "The county is supposed to maintain this."

The dirt road winds through a patch of pine trees planted years ago in tight rows. The dead-end road leads to the two houses the mayor owns about 200 yards from high fences topped with concertina wire that marks the back side of the prison, where seven inmates were killed and 22more injured in a nearly eight-hour riot Sunday night and Monday morning.

The houses were built more than two decades before the prison, and today they are rental homes. But potential renters are scared away by the shady people they see parking on the dirt road and sneaking into the woods, or slipping down the tree line to the woods from a BP gas station by Interstate 20.

"It makes people nervous," the mayor says.

'Doing the best they can'

Contraband — including cellphones and drugs — is rife in the prison, officials say. They either are thrown over the prison fence or smuggled in by guards or others.

Gov. Henry McMaster and Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said the bloody riot was sparked by territory, cellphones and other contraband within the facility.

"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they are incarcerated," Stirling said in a news conference.

Even though Stirling said the prison had more staffing than normal at the time of the riot — because of an overlap of shifts — the prison, like all in the South Carolina system, suffers from massive staff shortages.

Mayor Boyd said he believes prison officials are working to keep intruders away from their fences.

They have built two guard towers to help monitor the perimeter. A few years back they even deployed beehives around the fences to try to keep people from approaching.

“They are probably doing the best they can with the resources,” Boyd said.

'Scared of the inmates'

Glennon Laws, a city water and sewer worker, lives across the street from the prison. His wife, Vivian, works at the prison, but at the front gate, not in proximity of the inmates.

“I’m concerned about the health and welfare of the workers,” he said. “These young workers are scared of the inmates."

He, too, has seen suspicious vehicles entering the dirt road and people lurking in the woods, a pipeline for the contraband that fuels the prison economy.

“If you’ve got the money and the connections, you can get anything you want in there,” Laws said. “It’s like that guy from Chicago. What’s his name? Al Capone.”

A little farther down the street — called Wisacky Highway — and also across the street from the prison is the home of 73-year-old David Addison. Addison has served on the Lee County Council for nearly 20 years.

Other members of the Addison family have homes there, too. There's also a family-run upholstery shop. And David Addison has a barber shop there.

He noted that the patch of woods was not there when the prison was built.

“Before they set the pines out, they had a vegetable farm” where some inmates worked, Addison said. “I don’t know why they made the change.”

He, too, sees the shady people using the lane and hiding in the woods.

"They've actually used my parking lot," he said. "They come out here and sit, waiting for the perfect time."

'Aint' nothing perfect'

But despite their concerns about the violence inside the prison and the activity outside, all three men — Mayor Boyd, Councilman Addison and Laws — said they are supporters of the prison.

Bishopville and Lee County, like most rural areas, are poor. Jobs are precious.

There are sparks of life in Bishopville. The venerable Cotton Museum, a military museum, a couple new art galleries, some renovated buildings and many nods to its rich history.

But still about half of the storefronts on Main Street are vacant. Poverty is high. And the prison is seen as an opportunity rather than a danger.

“The prison is very important to us,” said Travis Windham, who has an insurance agency on Main Street and is chairman of the Lee County Council. “Rural South Carolina — rural America — is struggling, and we are lucky to have the jobs.”

He noted the prison has 500 employees.

“These jobs are recession-proof, noise-proof and pollution-proof. But there ain't nothing perfect. A lot of inmates got hurt. And I’m sorry about that. You just handle those situations and move on.”

'Locked up tight'

Most on Main Street feel that the prison is secure.

“There’s a feeling (the inmates) are the worst of the worst,” said Gee Atkinson, editor of the Lee County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Bishopville. “But they are locked up tight.”

Mayor Boyd also supports the prison.

“But let’s be for real,” he said. “Crime is all over, and the criminals are in there. They were fighting each other. But what if they would have pooled their resources? Could they have escaped? I don’t know.”

"But I do know one thing,” he said, as his Tahoe bounced down the dirt road and onto Wisacky Highway. “Bishopville is only a mile down the road.”