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South Carolina prison riot characterized as “mass casualty” event

The riot, in which seven were killed, is part of a broader epidemic of violence in US prisons.

A prison in the UK. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

A South Carolina prison erupted in violence on Sunday night and early Monday morning, turning into what officials described as a “mass casualty” event.

In total, seven inmates were killed and at least 17 were seriously injured, according to the Associated Press. An inmate told the AP that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other,” claiming that prison guards did little to stop the violence between inmates. Most of the fatal injuries appeared to be a result of stabbing or slashing, although some inmates may have been beaten to death. No prison guards were hurt.

The riot was the worst in a US prison in a quarter century, according to the AP.

Officials said the dispute at Lee Correctional Institution, which holds people convicted of some of the worst crimes in the state, was over money and territory. An inmate told the AP that the fighting appeared to be gang-related.

He also said that many cell lock doors were broken even before the riot, allowing inmates to roam freely and perhaps contributing to the chaos.

“It’s been over two hours, but no COs [corrections officers] have responded to this unit, and no medical personnel have attempted to render any kind of aid,” the inmate wrote to the AP. “The COs never even attempted to render aid, nor quell the disturbance. They just sat in the control bubble, called the issue in, then sat on their collective asses.”

The violence broke out around 7:15 pm on Sunday, spreading to three housing units. Officers failed to contain the violence for hours, with order restored by 2:55 am on Monday, the South Carolina Department of Corrections said in a statement on Facebook.

While the incident was particularly bad, it’s also part of a problem of violence in US prisons more broadly — a problem that, at least in South Carolina, seems to be getting deadlier.

Violence is a growing problem in South Carolina’s prisons

Violence is a very big problem in American prisons. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Correctional Health Care, about 21 percent of male prison inmates during a six-month period are physically assaulted, and between 2 and 5 percent are sexually assaulted.

But this kind of problem appears to be getting worse in South Carolina in particular. An investigation by John Monk for the State, a South Carolina newspaper, found that the number of inmates killed in the state’s prisons “more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.”

John Bacon and Tim Smith at USA Today reported on recent incidents at Lee Correctional:

The prison, which opened 25 years ago and holds about 1,700 of some of South Carolina’s most violent offenders, is no stranger to violence. Three weeks ago, inmates overpowered a guard, holding him hostage and taking control of part of a dorm for about 90 minutes. The guard was released uninjured.

In February, one inmate fatally stabbed another. …

The prison is about 50 miles east of Columbia. The state capital is home to the Kirkland Correctional Institution, where four inmates were fatally strangled a year ago. One of the two inmates accused of the crime said he killed them so he would be moved to death row.

Lee County Coroner Larry Logan told the AP that most South Carolina prisons have struggled to find enough workers, indicating that understaffing is making it difficult to keep these places under control. South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has previously acknowledged the understaffing problem — and the dangers it causes — as well.

Following reports of the riot, Stirling also blamed the availability of cellphones in prisons, which, he said, allows disputes over “real money and real territory” to continue in prison. He’s tried for years to get federal approval so state officials can block cellphone signals in the facilities.

Some lawmakers are already calling for action. South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D) tweeted that the riot was “unacceptable” and a “symptom” of broader flaws in the criminal justice system.

“A mass casualty incident inside a correctional facility is simply unacceptable,” Rutherford wrote. “Safety — for inmates, SCDC employees, and the public — must be a priority. Rioting like this is a symptom our criminal justice system is broken and needs reform now.”

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