Special Reports

Should prison be a death sentence? SC inmates say they fight for survival among gang violence

South Carolina prisons are a hotbed of violence, and not much has changed since the deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution.

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SC Prisons In Crisis

It’s been one year since one of the nation’s deadliest prison riots erupted in South Carolina. Is there hope for the state’s violent, gang-controlled prisons?

It took fewer than 24 hours for inmate Robert Zeigler to be brutally attacked when he arrived at a new prison in South Carolina.

Zeigler, then 49, was transferred to a dorm at Kershaw Correctional Institution in Lancaster County in 2014, which was known as a “risky and dangerous place to house inmates who were not members of the gangs,” according to a lawsuit Zeigler filed against the S.C. Department of Corrections that runs the state’s 21 prisons. The department does not comment on pending litigation.

Despite his pleas, Zeigler was moved into the dorm, where he shared a room with two gang-affiliated inmates, according to his 2016 lawsuit.

Within 24-hours, his cellmates covered their faces with masks to hide their identities from passersby and beat Zeigler with a large metal lock slung inside of a sock, according to the lawsuit. Putting a knife to his throat, the inmates robbed Zeigler, threatening to hurt him again.

Violent attacks, like the one on Zeigler, are on the rise in South Carolina’s prisons as gangs increasingly take control, weapons remain accessible and extended lockdowns heighten tensions, turning prisons into virtual war zones, according to more than 60 inmates interviewed by The State Media Co. and reviews of lawsuits. The safety of both inmates and prison officers are jeopardized and taxpayer-funded efforts to maintain order are being thwarted, they add.

Last April, the S.C. public glimpsed the unconstrained violence after seven inmates were killed and 22 more injured during a massive riot that engulfed about half of Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, marking the U.S.’s deadliest riot in a quarter century.

The incident, which SCDC investigators recently finished reviewing, has resulted in some direct changes in South Carolina’s prisons, including the installation of high-tech scanners at front gates to keep out cell phones, weapons and other contraband. Additionally, 50-foot-tall netting surrounds prisons.

Gangs battling over contraband was the riot’s cause, said Bryan Stirling, SCDC’s director — a problem his department is working to address.

“The contraband coming in just creates a lot of pressure. It creates a lot of conflict,” Stirling said. “The more contraband, the more access the cell phones, the more criminal activity you’re going to have behind bars.”


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Why did we report this story?

After the deadly riot at Lee Correctional in April 2018, many were left with questions. How could this happen in South Carolina? Is there anything that could have been done to prevent this? Could this happen again? We set out to answer those questions and others we had about just what is going on behind the walls in S.C.’s prisons.

How did we report this story?

The State began by reviewing all publicly available wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits filed in local courts against the Department of Corrections. After speaking with lawyers who filed the suits, reporter Emily Bohatch engaged in a letter writing campaign with more than 60 inmates across South Carolina to see if their experiences reflected those expressed in the lawsuits.

Why were some of the inmates included in the stories not named?

With an anti-”snitching” culture enveloping South Carolina’s prisons, many inmates explained to Bohatch that talking to the newspaper could result in retaliation from both correctional officers and fellow inmates. Lawyers have told The State that articles written about their clients’ lawsuits have resulted in attacks against them in the past.

In 2017, 135 inmates reported being seriously injured during assaults by their peers, triple the 2015 number.

“People get extorted, jumped, bullied, stabbed, hit with lock in socks,” inmate Michael Hall said. “And (officers) are well aware of those problems and they know who’s doing everything and turn a blind eye and deaf ear ... to all of it because it’s prison.”

That state data doesn’t show the full extent of illegal activity happening in prisons, according to The State Media Co.’s interviews with current and former inmates and reviews of more than 120 lawsuits about prison conditions.

“I think we’re seeing a build-up of tensions that’s going to explode, and I think it’s reaching its critical point as we talk now,” said Ed Bell, a Georgetown attorney who regularly represents inmates. “We’re getting crazy calls and crazy cases that in the past we would never (see).”


“What you’re doing is giving them Criminology 101 and they get out a better criminal, but not a better person,” Bell added. “They’re going in there and they’re fighting for survival.”

The chronically understaffed SCDC is working to curb prison violence. But several efforts have yet to produce results:

  • Correction leaders asked state lawmakers for $6 million for raises and bonuses for current and prospective staff. But the request appears unlikely to be included in the state’s final budget. A proposed raise for all state employees will help if lawmakers approve it.
  • Officials have lobbied the federal government for the ability to block cell phone signals within prisons. Bills have been introduced in Congress, but the practice remains prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission for now.
  • Much of the department’s security budget request has been axed by state lawmakers, including the purchase of a mechanical system of locking and unlocking cell doors to keep inmates from stealing keys and letting their peers run free in the dorms.

And changes that have been implemented — new cameras in some prisons, programs to keep inmates occupied and additional investigators to look into crimes committed behind bars — are hindered by the department’s ever-present shortage of prison employees.

As of March, the department was officially counting 685 security staff vacancies. But a consultant hired by SCDC to evaluate prisons in 2017, said more than 2,000 officers were needed.

“With our staffing levels down, it just makes it difficult to have the numbers there to handle things,” Stirling said.

Stirling has been working hard to close the gap, advertising jobs on billboards, launching social media hiring campaigns, loosening strict hiring policies and purchasing work items for employees such as boots. He also lobbied successfully to allow officers to receive overtime pay and higher wages.

“We’re doing as much as we can with what we have to make the prisons safe,” Stirling said.

Golf netting is set up around Broad River Correctional Institute Thursday March 14, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Violence: ‘That’s the way it is.’

On a sunny day in late 2018, an inmate assigned to an SCDC grounds clean-up crew pushed a lawnmower past a group of lock-up inmates getting in their recreation, he wrote in a letter to The State. As he walked by, one inmate offered him $100 to give him the blade from the machine, he claimed.

The inmate — who is serving time for a DUI hit-and-run that left a man dead — gripped his lawnmower tighter and walked past the man, ignoring the offer, he said. He asked not to be named in this story due to fear of retaliation.

“Somebody that doesn’t have any money and (doesn’t have) family that cares about them would try to get a lawnmower blade back there to them,” the inmate said. “That’s the way it is.”

Many prisoners are armed, according to four inmates and a lawyer interviewed by The State.

Of more than 120 lawsuits filed against SCDC reviewed by The State, 68 indicated inmates had access to various homemade or store-bought weapons, including knives, machetes, lawn mower blades, morning stars, axes, razors and ice picks.

One lawsuit filed in 2014 detailed a gun found inside of Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County. In another case, SCDC charged a former guard with bringing a gun into Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many calls to me for stabbing cases or people getting injured, inmate-on-inmate kind of cases with contraband,” Georgetown lawyer C. Carter Elliott said.

Elliott, who handles several cases against SCDC involving inmates, said the prevalence of weapons inside of South Carolina’s prisons has contributed to the growing danger of gangs.

And when the gangs are armed, inmates who aren’t affiliated arm themselves for protection, inmate James John Abernathy said.

“Most inmates keep weapons because they’re scared or they’re in a gang,” Abernathy said.

The results can be deadly.

As the percentage of violent offenders in SC prisons has increased so has the number of inmates killing other inmates. Homicides have quadrupled between fiscal years 2015 and 2017, according to SCDC data, from 3 to 12.

In 2017, for example, four inmates were lured into a cell at Kirkland Correctional Institution and were strangled by two dorm keepers who hoped their new crimes would land them on death row.

Later that year, one inmate was killed and eight more were hospitalized at Turbeville Correctional Institution, a prison that housed mostly youthful offenders between the ages of 17-25 at the time.

To battle the pervasive prison contraband trade, the department has stepped up its game, adding solar powered lights outside of prisons and a central camera monitoring system. It has also clear cut trees from around fences, surrounded prisons with netting to catch contraband and installed airport-like body scanners, among other efforts.

As a result, Stirling says his department has nearly ended the practice of outsiders throwing contraband over prison fences, though, in the past, the department has acknowledged that smugglers are getting more creative, even using potato guns. In 2018, the department confiscated 4,695 cell phones, about 1,600 fewer than the year before, according to an SCDC spokesman. So far this year, the stark drop in the number of found phones has continued, an official said.

“The fencing system has been tremendous,” Stirling said. “The numbers bear it out. The phones aren’t coming in like they used to,” Stirling said.

Golf netting is set up around Broad River Correctional Institute Thursday March 14, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Are lockdowns increasing prison violence?

Lockdowns, where inmates are confined to their cells for up to 24 hours per day, is one reason for the uptick in violence, according to inmates and attorneys interviewed by The State.

During 2017, various institutions were placed on lockdown — some up to 350 times —because of staffing shortages, according to a report commissioned by SCDC. The report did not say which prisons experienced the large number of lockdowns.

The following year, inmates in many medium and maximum security prisons spent April to December on lockdown following the riot at Lee Correctional.

“If you keep someone in a cell everyday all day, feed and talk and treat them like an animal, yes, they get aggressive, frustrated and may seem like an animal,” Abernathy said.

With only one correctional officer sometimes monitoring more than 125 inmates, a lot of crime goes undetected, warned the 2018 report. Since the report was released, the department has lost an additional 39 security staff members, Stirling said.

A bulletin board is set up for correctional staff at Kirkland Correctional Institution Thursday March 14, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Low staffing levels also makes it difficult to keep the flow of contraband and fights over territory under control, Stirling said.

Some of the more in-demand items within prisons are illicit drugs, which are easy for inmates to get their hands on, said eight inmates and lawyers.

From July 2017 to June 2018, the Department of Corrections tested about 11,600 inmates for drugs, according to SCDC testimony at an S.C. House Committee meeting. Of those, about 1,300 tested positive and about 570 more refused to be tested.

An inmate who works as a groundskeeper described to The State smelling marijuana as he walked from yard to yard. Others described seeing inmates smoking openly on various occasions.

“To be honest, I’ve seen more meth and (other drugs) back here than I have my whole life,” inmate James John Abernathy said, “Most had problems with addiction on the outside, and instead of coming to prison and getting help, they came to a whole ‘nother jungle full of every and anything you could want.”

Gangs: ‘They’re running our jails.’

In 2016, David Warrick said he tried to escape the gang-affiliated lifestyle he had been living while incarcerated in South Carolina.

The former member of the Gangster Disciples asked to be moved to a new dorm and was placed in a holding cell, according to his lawsuit filed against SCDC. Warrick was temporarily housed with another inmate.

As the two settled in, a hawkbill knife was pushed under the cell door, according to the lawsuit. Warrick was told to stab his fellow inmate.

Shoving the knife back under the door, Warrick refused the order, according to the lawsuit. Later, Warrick was moved into another dorm, where he was stabbed in the shoulder and the head for not “paying his debts,” according to the suit.

The Department of Corrections does not comment on pending litigation.

Warrick is one of many inmates who claim to have been physically harmed when they defy the wishes of the prevalent gang population behind bars.

“We have a sworn testimony from a warden who admitted that the gangs are running the jails. Now, that’s astounding,” Bell said. “He said, ‘You know, they’re running the jails. We’re just monitoring them.’”

Bell represents a number of inmates, especially in cases that include gang activity. Over the years, he said a number of inmates have come to his firm, claiming to have been attacked after refusing to pay the gangs for protection money.

Bell isn’t the only ones who see the gangs as the true masters of prison life. Eleven other inmates, lawyers and family members cited cases where gang members took control. Almost 60 lawsuits examined by The State listed competing gangs as a serious detriment to the rule of order.

The number of gang members in South Carolina’s prisons has increased, Stirling said.

“We’ve made it our priority to identify these gang members so we can know who they are and what they’re doing,” he said, adding that is part of the duties of a new department task force.

Gang control manifests in a range of ways, from cooperation with and control of guards — according to 20 lawsuits, inmates, family members and lawyers — to smaller instances like controlling communal items like microwaves.

Gang members will claim control over phones used to contact family members and friends, not allowing others to use them freely, Stirling recently explained to the Legislative Oversight Committee.

A new SCDC program, which gives inmates modified tablets to contact family and access pre-approved entertainment and education apps, may help combat the issue, he added.

A former warden of Lieber Correctional Institution, Stan Burtt, believes gangs really gained a foothold in South Carolina’s prisons as the staffing shortage began to plague the system in the late 1990s.

“Inmate culture is completely different (today). Before we went into this, gang culture existed, but it was nowhere near what is there now,” Burtt said. “People have gone to the gangs for protection or whatever. That’s because there is no staff.”

Despite their behavior and being in a facility that is monitored around the clock, gang-affiliated inmates don’t have to fear punishment, allege eight lawsuits examined by The State.

In one case, legally blind inmate Dexter Crawford asked to be moved because gang members were threatening him after he was attacked by inmates at the same prison a few months prior, according to a lawsuit filed last year.

SCDC officials refused to move him, so he moved his belongings into a different room. Regardless, the gang members tracked him down, beating him and stabbing him in the neck and back when there was no correctional officer in the area, according to the lawsuit.

When a case worker and guard came back on the dorm, the gang members allegedly told them to leave, according to the lawsuit. The pair allegedly left, leaving the bleeding inmate alone with the gang members.

According to the lawsuit, officials told Crawford they couldn’t move him in the first place because he did not help them identify his attackers in the previous case. But if he had, the results could have been similar, especially considering the prison culture against “snitching.”

In one case, an inmate was placed on protective custody after testifying against his fellow inmates, according to a lawsuit filed in December 2017.

A second inmate in protective custody, Montavious Winkfield, allegedly told the inmate years before he knew “who he was and what he had done, and would kill him if he got the chance,” the lawsuit read.

Several inmates began to lodge complaints about Winkfield, telling officials they were not safe as long as he was around. One inmate wrote to officials that Winkfield had a “full-length lawn mower blade” he got from a yard worker, according to the lawsuit.

Guards searched for the weapon, but didn’t find it because it was hidden behind a wall used to conceal plumbing pipes, according to the lawsuit.

In February 2017, Winkfield stabbed the inmate in the arm, back and chest. It was the fourth time he was stabbed while in SCDC custody, according to the lawsuit.

That is one example of what makes it so difficult for SCDC to investigate crimes that occur in its own facilities. During testimony to the Legislative Oversight Committee, Stirling said many are afraid of being targeted when SCDC’s Police Services arrive to interview them.

In one case, inmate Bryan Clyburn tried to give a correctional officer a note identifying gang members who assaulted and stabbed another inmate, according to a lawsuit. The guard gave a note to a colleague, who allegedly told gang members the inmate tried to snitch on them. The inmate was later stabbed 23 times.

“The guys who are victims of assault worry about retaliation a lot more, because they feel like particular prison guards are compromised and share secrets with gang members and things like this,” said Charleston lawyer Aaron Mayer, who represents several inmates. “And certain gang members may feel like they can curry favor even if it weren’t specifically asked of them, they can curry favor by retaliating against them.”

Sometimes, fear means violent crimes go unreported.

“There’s no protection. It’s very difficult for those guys to talk about what happened and tell and witnesses to come forward because they’re putting themselves in jeopardy,” attorney Elliott said.

One lawsuit detailed an incident in which an inmate was beaten and stabbed, and his fellow dorm-mates begged him not to report it so the dorm wouldn’t be placed on lockdown.

Even if inmates take the risk to report the crime to a trusted source, there is no promise they will get any justice, Elliott said.

“Those investigators usually tell me, ‘Why would we want to charge them?’ or ‘How are we going to benefit? They’re already in here for 20 years and we’re just going to give them 10 more.’ I think that’s a joke to me,” Elliott said. “If you’re not going to charge them with a crime because of what they’re doing, what are they going to do to deter them from doing it again?”

Stirling said when it comes to investigating, finding cooperation can be difficult.

“We try to investigate to the fullest of our ability and charge people with the crime and then turn it over to the solicitors,” Stirling said in an interview with The State. “Just like on the street, it makes it difficult if we don’t have any witnesses. And sometimes the victim will say, ‘I’m not talking to y’all.’ How do you make a case without any witnesses?”

And without witnesses, the department may have to rely on other evidence like camera footage, though not all prisons are even equipped with camera, Stirling said. Even when they do, there is no guarantee the camera caught anything.

“I’m amazed at the ability of folks to take a camera out that’s in the middle of a prison cell during an incident,” Stirling said. “It will just all of a sudden go out, and it’s like, ‘How did they get to that?’”

Recently, Stirling said the department pushed to double the number of investigators at SCDC facilities. That, along with a push for more regular staff, new cameras and cutting the contraband trade using new golf netting, are initiatives the department embarked on to help cut down violence, he said.

Additionally, he believes a new peer-to-peer counseling initiative — where inmates counsel each other on decision making and anger management — will lessen attacks.

“We’re getting some longer term inmates who are here who want to reach out to these young folks to work with them and talk to them about choices that they make, why they make the choices they do,” Stirling said. “Like, ‘Am I going to go hit that guy? Am I going to go attack that guy?’ And kind of work your way and, like, talk to them.”

Barbed wired fencing guides a path to a Kirkland Correctional Institution dorm Thursday March 14, 2019, in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Escaping the violence

When inmates report to Department of Corrections officials that they are in danger, officials sometimes fail to transfer threatened prisoners to a safer yard or prison, according to inmates and lawsuits.

For example, inmate Garcia Wilson was beaten and stabbed by nine inmates at Turbeville Correctional Institution in 2016, according to a lawsuit filed against the department. When he returned from the hospital, he was transferred to Evans Correctional Institution, where he found himself face-to-face with one of his attackers, according to the suit.

In another case, inmate Jerry Brunson was stabbed 16 times in the head, neck, face, side and leg while in the cafeteria at Evans Correctional, according to a lawsuit. The attacker had tried to beat Brunson with a lock-in-a-sock just eight months before and had a history of altercations when the pair were housed at Allendale Correctional Institution.

SCDC does not comment on pending litigation.

During testimony before the Legislative Oversight Committee, Stirling said officials are told to interview inmates and evaluate them, transferring them into protective custody if they are in danger.

“If it comes to our attention, we would immediately put them into protective custody,” Stirling said, but reiterated that sometimes it is difficult to get inmates to cooperate.

Still, Stirling claimed, they make “every effort” to move inmates out of harms way.

Even if an inmate gets moved to another yard, he could end up back with his attackers, five inmates said. Thirteen lawsuits detailed cases in which that happened. Stirling, on the other hand, said the department keeps track of which inmates should be kept on separate yards.

Fighting the moves can be impossible, inmates say.

Inmate C.C. — who filed a lawsuit against SCDC — said he requested to be placed in protective custody after he was assaulted and beaten with a metal pipe until his jaw broke. Still awaiting surgery to fix his jaw, he was ferried from institution to institution, eventually landing on the same prison yard as his attackers, he said.

“I feel they’re hoping that someone kills me before so they don’t have to pay,” he said.

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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.