Crime & Courts

7 inmates killed in 'mass casualty incident' at SC prison

Seven inmates were killed during fights that lasted more than seven hours at a South Carolina prison Sunday night and into Monday morning, according to officials.

At least six emergency agencies responded to the "mass casualty incident" at Lee Correctional Institution in Lee County that resulted in the seven inmate deaths and 17 other inmates requiring medical attention, the S.C. Department of Corrections announced early Monday morning.

The fight, which spanned three dorms, was likely gang related, and spawned from a disagreement over territory, contraband and cellphones, SC Department of Corrections Director Brian Stirling said.

"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated," Stirling said.

Though most of the autopsies have yet to be performed, it appears that many of the prisoners died from stabbing or slashing wounds from "shanks," Lee County Coroner Larry Logan said. The official cause of death will not be determined until after the autopsies.

Videos that reportedly were taken by inmates inside the prison and shared to social media show the grisly scene after the riot.

One video, which was shot from what looks like a catwalk on the upper level of a cellblock, shows towels or clothing items on the floor and a long trail of what appears to be smeared blood leading to a larger puddle of blood near a wall. Another video shows a bloody man lying on his side against a wall, not moving.

The seven victims were identified Monday morning. Logan said coroner's offices from across the state reached out to him and offered to assist on the numerous autopsies.

An inmate told The Associated Press that bodies at the prison were "literally stacked on top of each other" and that hours after the violence started, no correctional officers or medical personnel attended to the dead or dying.

Lee County Fire and Rescue said in a Facebook post Monday morning that it assisted with the incident at Lee Correctional Institution. EMS crews from Florence County, Kershaw County, Lexington County and Hartsville also responded.

Inmates were taken to two hospitals in Florence, one hospital in Hartsville and Palmetto Health-Tuomey in Sumter, Lee County EMS Director Tim DuBose said. A mass casualty bus from Lexington County took some to Palmetto Health Richland.

The S.C. Department of Corrections said on Twitter around the same time that an incident involving "multiple inmate on inmate altercations" in three housing units at the prison began around 7:15 p.m. Sunday.

Corrections officers saw the fight break out in the first dorm, called for back up and waited for response teams around the state to come to their aide, Stirling said. About 44 personnel were present at the prison, double what's normally on shift. Four officers were staffing the dorm, which is home to 250 to 260 inmates, during the fight.

At about 8:30 p.m., fights broke out in two more dorms, Stirling said. At 9 p.m., other teams across the state were activated and called to Lee Correctional. The S.C. Law Enforcement Department responded about 20 minutes later.

As the clock approached 11:30 p.m., responders entered the first dorm to take it back from prisoners, Stirling said. An hour later, they retook the second. The third dorm wasn't recaptured until 2 a.m.

The prison was secure just before 3 a.m., according to the Department of Corrections.

The Department of Corrections, the S.C. Law Enforcement Department and Lee county officials worked together to help secure the facility, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said.

“We are also continuing to work with Department of Corrections on the investigation into what began this incident and the subsequent fights that broke out,” Berry said.

EMS personnel didn't clear the prison until about 5 a.m., DuBose said.

The department said all responding officers and emergency workers are safe and accounted for.

The maximum-security facility that houses about 1,600 inmates in Bishopville, about 55 miles from Columbia, is home to some of South Carolina's most violent, longest-serving offenders. In recent years, there have been several large insurrections, including one in which an inmate overpowered a guard and used his keys to free others from their cells.

The prison is currently understaffed, Stirling said, with a 28 percent vacancy. Officers, who normally work a 12 hour shift, are asked to work even more overtime. On a regular basis, four officers are assigned to a dorm, which ranges from an occupancy of 250 inmates to 260 inmates, he added.

The seven deaths at Lee Correctional are the most in any S.C. prison in recent history, The Associated Press reported. Four inmates were killed last year by fellow prisoners at the state's Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia.

The prison has had several violent incidents over the years.

Sunday's fatal fights came three weeks after inmates briefly held an officer hostage and took control of part of a dorm at the Bishopville prison.

An inmate died during a fight in the prison last July.

In January 2016, five inmates were injured in a fight in one of the housing units. Five months later, one inmate was killed and another injured during an incident.

Five corrections officers were injured during a December 2007 attack by three inmates in one of the dorms.

In June 2012, the prison was placed on lockdown after a guard was taken hostage.

Over the span of 2012 to 2013, the prison was taken over twice by inmates.

Check back for updates.

The Associated Press contributed

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