Crime & Courts

A year after 7 killed in SC prison, investigation finishes. Here’s what we know

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.

Almost a year after the deadliest U.S. prison riot in a quarter century took the lives of seven South Carolina inmates, the investigation into what happened at Lee Correctional Institution has wrapped up, prison officials say.

Investigators at the S.C. Department of Corrections will send their findings to the state Attorney General’s Office and the local solicitor in the next week, prisons Director Bryan Stirling said in an interview with The State Wednesday.

The Attorney General’s office will be receiving the investigative report Friday, spokesman Robert Kittle said. The report itself will not be made public, but details may be released later, he said, though there is no timeline for that.

Officials at the 3rd Circuit Solicitors office — who prosecutes cases in Lee County — could not be reached for comment.

In the year since Eddie Gaskins, Joshua Jenkins, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, Damonte Rivera, Raymond Scott and Corey Scott were killed at the Bishopville prison, questions have swirled around what exactly caused the riot. No one has been charged yet in their deaths.

Some, including the former warden of the maximum security prison, have claimed that in the days before the riot, a massive transfer of inmates from McCormick Correctional Institution exacerbated tensions at the prison and caused the deadly incident.

The warden was transferred soon after the riot and is now suing the department for using him as a “scapegoat” for the incident, he said.

“We were having issues at McCormick Correctional, ... so the decision was made to transfer some folks here,” Stirling said in the interview, conducted inside interview inside Lee Correctional.

Stirling would not comment on whether the inmates from McCormick were involved in the hours-long skirmish that began April 15 and ended early the next morning.

“I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation, however, if we get more leads, then we will investigate those leads,” Stirling said.

While some claim a transfer of unruly prisoners is to blame for the riot, in the hours following the incident, Stirling and S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster blamed gangs, who were using cellphones to communicate and to continue to run illegal operations outside of prison walls.

Since, Stirling has joined corrections and criminal justice officials across the country in a push for technology to jam cellphone signals in state prisons, something currently prohibited by the federal law.

Reports commissioned by the department have outlined several other issues Lee Correctional was facing shortly before the riot. After a November 2017 inspection of the facility, corrections expert and former prison administrator Tom Roth said the corrections department’s staffing crisis left the prison “operating at extremely deficient levels.”

The report was delivered to officials at the Department of Corrections a month before the riot.

While the corrections department continues to battle a chronic vacancy issue, Stirling said he has been working hard to combat it, including advocating for officer raises and doling out other incentives. As of February, the department had 685 security vacancies, 85 more than that time last year.

“I think our officers are doing a lot and are asked to do a lot. They’re stretched thin,” Stirling said. “We have one officer in the dorm, which is not what we want.”

One of his ideas for combating the staffing issue is creating a team of officers based in Columbia that could help fill in at any facility that needed them.

“We’re working on improvements,” Stirling said. “We still have staffing issues at the Department of Corrections, and it’s been something that has been here for a long time.”

Meanwhile, inmates across the state spent the majority of the last year on lockdown, spending up to 24 hours a day in their cells for months on end. As of Wednesday, two dorms at Lee Correctional are still on the restrictive schedule.

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.

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