Gang members fighting a turf war over cell phones and other contraband was cause of riot at Lee Correctional Institute
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday that violence, while unfortunate, is to be expected sometimes in prisons, where violent people are locked up.
"It's not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside the prison — any prison in the country," McMaster said Monday, during an 18-minute-long briefing for reporters about a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville late Sunday that left seven inmates dead.
However, some S.C. lawmakers sounded alarms, saying state prisons need more money for increased staffing and security.
McMaster has pushed legislators to include more money in the state budget to recruit and retain corrections officers at the prisons agency, which is dealing with high turnover among its staff and large numbers of job vacancies that it is unable to fill.
But some of McMaster's challengers in this year's race for governor and other state officials seized on the riot at Lee to call for more reforms.
Catherine Templeton, one of four Republicans challenging McMaster in June's primary for governor, issued a statement saying prisoners have been "jumping fences, rioting, and putting our correctional officers in danger time and time again" under McMaster's watch.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said inmates being killed in the state's prisons "is simply unacceptable."
"Rioting like this is a symptom (that) our criminal justice system is broken and needs reform now," said the Richland Democrat.
The deadly fights, which spanned across three separate Lee Correctional dorms, likely were gang related and involved factors outside the prison, state Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling said during Monday afternoon's news conference.
"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated," Stirling said, adding officials suspect cellphones were used to inform inmates in the second and third dorms that a fight had broken out in the first.
Stirling and McMaster have called on Congress to change a law that prohibits the use of technology to jam cellphone signals.
Stirling, on Monday, again called for the Federal Communications Commission and cellphone companies to help the agency come up with a way to block cellphone use by prisoners, something he said could help prevent inmates from continuing to operate illegal enterprises while jailed and curb outbreaks of violence.
"Jamming those cellphone signals will do a lot," McMaster said. "It's an absolute outrage that that is the law ... and we're doing our best to see that FCC law is changed and changed as quick as possible."
McMaster and state legislators expressed confidence Monday in Corrections chief Stirling.
However, the deaths of seven inmates at the Lee County prison — the most deaths at any state prison in recent history — put yet another spotlight on the rough and sometimes violent conditions that S.C. prison guards and prisoners face daily, officials said.
Because of staffing shortages, S.C. prisons sometimes have a single corrections officer charged with overseeing dozens of inmates.
During the riot that started Sunday night, there were 12 corrections officers manning the three dorms where fights broke out. Each of the dorms housed from 250 to 260 inmates, Stirling said, adding most officers work 12-hour shifts plus overtime to cover staffing needs.
Asked whether he will recommend any other changes at the state's prisons, McMaster said an investigation is underway that may produce ideas for reforms.
"We have rules and regulations, we have protocols, we have training, and there's an enormous effort made to be sure that these kinds of things do not happen or are kept at a minimum," the Columbia Republican said. "It's unfortunate when they do happen, but this is one of the instances when they did."
Some lawmakers said the state must do more to reduce the state's prison population, using sentencing reform to ensure nonviolent offenders are not sent to prison.
"We have way too many people in prison," Rep. Rutherford said. "When you have 30 inmates and 10 are the most violent and need supervision, (and) the rest are drug offenders, that corrections officer still has to oversee 30 people."
Legislators already are including more money for prisons in their budget proposals for the state's fiscal year that starts July 1 — $3.7 million more in the House's spending plan and $5 million more in the Senate's budget draft. That money would go to give raises to corrections officers, part of an effort to help the prison system retain and recruit prison guards.
'People deserve better'
But some legislators say the state needs to do more.
"Corrections needs more resources, especially in its most dangerous facilities," said state Sen. Shane Martin, the Spartanburg Republican who chairs the Senate's prisons committee. "The current budget proposal addresses the need, to an extent, but we have to keep the commitment to public safety and do more next year."
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said raises will help the prisons agency retain staff. But, he added, the Legislature must assess the agency's other needs, including better security and spreading out the "worst of the worst" inmates, now concentrated in maximum-security units.
"I hate that tragedy is always the spark to get the fire of change going — whether it's Walter Scott, Mother Emanuel, or whether it was a school bus wreck or a train derailment," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg. "When are we going to say, as a state, that our people deserve better, that people don't have to die? ... Let's fix it."