Crime & Courts

SC prisons besieged by lawsuits alleging violence, unsafe conditions

“I’m so disappointed in everything.” Parents of inmate try to check on him after prison fight

Cynthia and Robert Jackson came to Lee Correctional Institute after a fight that killed seven inmate deaths and injured 17 others.
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Cynthia and Robert Jackson came to Lee Correctional Institute after a fight that killed seven inmate deaths and injured 17 others.

South Carolina's 21 prisons are awash in violence and danger.

That's according to more than a dozen current and former lawsuits against the S.C. Department of Corrections, which oversees Lee Correctional Institution where seven inmates died in eight hours of rioting that started Sunday night and lasted into early Monday morning.

It was the nation's most deadly prison riot in some 25 years, according to the Reuters news agency.

"They (officials) obviously aren't providing the constitutionally required safe environment for the inmates," said Carter Elliott, a Georgetown lawyer whose has filed lawsuits on behalf of injured or slain S.C. prison system inmates.

Elliott is one of the attorneys in two lawsuits filed in January by the families of two inmates who were killed execution-style in April 2016 at the Broad River Road state prison complex outside Columbia. Two other inmates were killed at the same time.

Two other inmates have been arrested and charged with murdering the four slain inmates.

From armed inmates taking staff hostage in 1999 to recent fights that killed seven inmates in 2018, here is a timeline of inmate violence in Lee Correctional Institution.

Elliott's lawsuits allege the inmates died because of drastic understaffing and poor mental-health care in their prison unit. No guard was present when the inmates were slain. Currently, the prison system needs at least 600 more corrections officers.

Ed Bell, another Georgetown attorney who handles lawsuits on behalf of injured and slain inmates, said prison officials "are not looking at the red flags and the clear evidence" of how dangerous the state's prisons are.

"To me, prison officials have violated the Eighth Amendment (to the Constitution) in spades," Bell said, referring to the amendment that prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Bell said the situation is so dire that, at some point, South Carolina might be in danger of a federal takeover of its prison system.

"I can tell you that (lawsuits alleging constitutional violations by the state prison system) is under discussion right now," Bell said.

Bell currently is pressing 11 lawsuits targeting conditions in 11 separate S.C. prisons. A common allegation is that gangs exercise so much control in state prisons that inmates must pay them off to survive. Another allegation is some prison wardens have failed to keep inmates safe. Bell said he intends to file a 12th lawsuit that centers on Lee Correctional Institution in the near future.

2017 statistics show that the amount of inmate murders has grown within South Carolina prisons, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections

S.C. prisons have been under court orders before.

In 1985, the state agreed to build five new prisons as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit. In a 2016 state court settlement, the prison system also agreed to improve conditions for mentally ill prisoners.

If the state won't act to keep prisoners safe, the lawsuits are a way to force change, Elliott said.

"These killings are just the beginning of what could happen if we don't so something — and something drastic — right now," Elliott said.

Seven inmates were killed during fights that lasted more than seven hours at Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville, SC.