South Carolina

Former SC prison warden says he was SCDC’s ‘scapegoat’ after riot, sues department

The former warden of Lee Correctional Institution is suing the S.C. Department of Corrections after he says they transferred him against his will because of the riot at his facility earlier last year, according to a statement from law firm Cromer Babb Porter & Hicks.

The lawsuit alleges that officials moved Aaron Joyner Dec. 28 in order to “cover up mistakes, errors and negligence on the part of the command structure of SCDC” which caused the April riot, still considered the deadliest of its kind in the last 25 years.

“Warden Joyner is currently the Warden of the Year at Department of Corrections and will not be used as a scapegoat,” lawyer J. Lewis Cromer said, according to the statement. “He was not responsible for the adverse events which occurred last year at Lee Correctional Institution and, in fact, he made great improvements in that facility.”

The Department of Corrections does not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Dexter Lee said Friday.

The lawsuit points to overcrowding in the prison — populated with some of South Carolina’s most violent offenders — as the cause of the riot, which left seven dead. According to data provided by the S.C. Department of Corrections, the prison population has been declining for years, reaching 19,097 by June 2018.

Joyner’s lawyers also pointed to the chronic understaffing, which Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has admitted to on multiple occasions. About a week ago, Stirling said the department needs about 700 more guards to be fully staffed.

Other reports commissioned by the department have suggested the department needs to hire more than 2,000 more security officers to safely staff the prison system. Specifically, the report recommended adding 180 security staff members at Lee Correctional. That report was delivered to corrections officials about a month before the riot.

Joyner is the first SCDC official to publicly break with the department when it comes to the cause of the deadly riot at Lee Correctional. In the hours after the killings, Stirling and Gov. Henry McMaster spoke out, saying illegal cellphones and gang activity were to blame.

In the months following the riot, about 25 lawsuits against SCDC were filed in local Lee County Courts. All of the lawsuits made similar allegations about chronic understaffing and overcrowding of the facility before the riot.

Prison Riot GM.jpg
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks about the violent incident at Lee Correctional Institute during a news conference at the South Carolina Department of Corrections headquarters in Columbia on Monday, April 16, 2018. Seven inmates were killed during fights at the prison Sunday night and into Monday morning, according to officials. (Gavin McIntyre/The State) Gavin McIntyre/The State

Joyner served as the warden at Palmer Correctional Institution, a minimum security institution, until April 2017, when he was asked to move to Lee Correctional, according to the lawsuit. Soon after, Joyner learned the SCDC would be transferring inmates from McCormick Correctional Institution to his new facility.

The warden objected to the moves, warning officials of the “dire consequences that might occur,” according to the lawsuit. After the riot at the Bishopville prison, Joyner alleges Stirling and other department officials blamed the prison’s issues on him.

The warden claims he was cleared of responsibility for the riot by a “report issued by a multi-state commission investigating the situation at Lee.” That report has not been provided to the public, and when The State previously asked the Association of State Correctional Administrators — a group responsible for reviewing the riot — for information on their investigation, officials declined to comment.

In the lawsuit, Joyner said he was forced into an early retirement after initially being offered a position at a medium security prison.

Joyner is asking for a jury to order SCDC to pay him $300,000 and that individuals named in the lawsuit, including Stirling, be made to pay $3 million.

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.