South Carolina

‘How long can we keep our sanity?’ Some SC prisons locked down 8 months after riot

Since the deadly April riot at Lee Correctional Institution, some inmates across South Carolina have spent eight months locked in cells for up to 24 hours a day for a prison riot that most had nothing to do with, more than 25 inmates told The State.

“I have not been outside or seen the sun in six months. Hundreds of inmates are being punished for nothing,” an inmate in a central South Carolina prison wrote to The State in October. Two months later, he is still waiting out the days in a cell, he said in a follow-up letter.

The inmate, along with more than 25 others who contacted The State, requested to remain anonymous because of fears for his safety.

The state Department of Corrections confirms that several prisons have been on lockdown for up to eight months. But it says inmates are removed from cells at times for showers, programming and other reasons. The inmates, the ACLU and a federal lawsuit dispute that.

The inmates who reached out to The State via letters say they have been denied showers for weeks at a time, have been denied regular educational programming and haven’t seen the sun in the more than 250 days since the riot.

As of Dec. 19, dorms in eight of the 21 institutions run by SCDC were on lockdown, the corrections agency said. After seven inmates were killed at Lee Correctional, eight facilities across the state were initially placed on lockdown, SCDC spokesman Dexter Lee said.

A ninth institution — Trenton Correctional — is also under restrictive protocols, but because of the style of the prison’s dorms, SCDC does not consider it to be under lockdown, Lee said.

The institutions affected by the lockdown include Broad River Correctional, Lee Correctional, Lieber Correctional, Evans Correctional, Kershaw Correctional, McCormick Correctional, Ridgeland Correctional, Turbeville Correctional and Trenton Correctional.

Inmates in Trenton Correctional live in an open-dorm setting, though, so they are not confined to individual rooms, Lee said.

Five of those institutions temporarily were removed from lockdown status for about a month and placed on “modified release,” allowing inmates to “operate normally,” Lee said.

That status was revoked because of “critical” staffing levels caused by the holiday season, Lee said.

The lockdowns were “implemented as a safety and security measure,” he said.

All institutions affected by the lockdown are medium- or maximum-security prisons. A total of 6,604 inmates were under lockdown as of Dec. 19, Lee said. That’s more than 35 percent of the 18,716 inmates in the system that day.

Three inmates who wrote to The State said guards claimed the lockdown was due to chronic understaffing, which has been an issue acknowledged by the department, according to documents produced by SCDC. In a report released in June 2018, the department said it did not have enough staff to reach “safe-levels” and it was struggling with “tremendous turnover.”

SCDC admitted this week the staffing shortage is partially to blame for the long-lasting lockdown. Lee declined to explain why under-staffing, which the department has said for at least three years is a problem, warranted an eight-month lockdown this year.

In his response to a question about the lockdowns, Lee also said “we have continued to take the necessary critical security measures relating to contraband and gang violence.”

When asked about the lockdowns in September, Lee said, “Lockdowns are a means of securing the prisons and not a form of punishment.”

In September, the ACLU of South Carolina called for an end to the lockdown. “We definitely have concerns in the way that the inmates have been treated and are continuing to be treated,” ACLU Director Shaundra Scott said in September.

In an statement to The State last week, the SCDC spokesman said prisons are offering mail, visitation, telephone calls, showers, food service, programming and medical care to all inmates, including those affected by the lockdown.

The State also asked how much time on average inmates spend in their cells a day during the lockdown. On two different occasions, SCDC declined to answer. Lee did say, though, that inmates were released for showering, programming, medical needs and visitation. In other words, if inmates did not receive visits, participate in educational or vocational training or require medical care, they may not leave their cells at any time except to shower.

Twenty-three people with close ties to South Carolina’s prisons — including inmates and their family members — said prisoners have been denied access to showers for weeks at a time during the lockdown. Some inmates had been allowed to shower once a week, six said. Others were made to wait two weeks or more, 11 inmates said.

A federal lawsuit filed against SCDC Director Bryan Stirling also said inmates were receiving only one shower a week.

“In society, normal people clean themselves daily, not bi-weekly,” an inmate said in a letter to The State.

Lee refuted those 11, saying inmates are offered showers once or twice a week.

“Again, thus depending on the appropriate level of staffing available, there may have been times when showers were only offered once a week,” Lee said.

Inmates said they were told to clean themselves off in the sink provided in their cells, which have also not been cleaned for long periods of time, according to seven inmates.

Those seven said SCDC has not provided inmates with cleaning supplies to disinfect the areas they’ve spent nearly 24 hours a day in for several months. The federal lawsuit also makes this allegation.

“Seven months living in filth,” an inmate said to The State in November. “Straight inhumane and no one on the street will give us no help.”

Lee said SCDC “routinely” gives inmates supplies to clean cells. He did not specify how often that happens.

In the federal lawsuit, one inmate claimed the unclean conditions had caused a rash.

Though classes or vocational training could provide a reprieve, 15 inmates say they and others have not had access to programming during the lockdown. Lee said inmates are still offered programming.

In addition to being denied recreational opportunities, 17 inmates said they haven’t seen the sun in months. SCDC officials have said in internal agency documents that they painted over exterior windows in cells or installed a metal plate.

On two different occasions, The State inquired about the coverings on exterior windows, but on both occasions, SCDC did not provide a response.

In a report published in 2018, SCDC said the facilities department was covering windows to “deter inmates from being able to see outside activity (such as contraband thrown on the yard) from their cells.”

In the federal lawsuit filed against Stirling, an inmate said he and others were denied recreational time outside of the cell, spending 24 hours a day in the small space. In an attached letter from SCDC to the inmate, an SCDC warden said policy allowed staff to suspend recreation during a lockdown.

The inmate was told he would be issued “in-cell exercise information,” which The State requested a copy of. That form has not yet been provided to The State.

“How long can we keep our sanity?” one inmate asked.

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.