S.C. prisons overflow with violence, illegal weapons and dangerous gangs, according to lawyers who have represented injured or killed inmates and their families in lawsuits against the S.C. Department of Corrections.
"This is a tinderbox that is just getting hotter and hotter," said Georgetown attorney Ed Bell, speaking of the seven inmates slain during an eight-hour prisoner riot Sunday night and early Monday at the maximum security Lee Correctional Institution, near Bishopville.
"The gangs now run the prisons," said Bell.
Inadequate staffing is a major problem. But South Carolina's prisons don't have enough rehabilitative programs and other activities to help manage prisoners, Bell said.
In January, state prisons Director Bryan Stirling told The State his agency is so understaffed that some corrections officers are not on duty in some areas of the state's 21 prisons. The 20,000-inmate system has 1,872 front-line corrections officers, but it needs another 600 officers. Gangs also are a major problem, Stirling acknowledged in January.
Bell said it is well known in the prisons that if you aren't a gang member, you have to become one or pay protection money to the gangs. "If you don't, you'll be attacked and stabbed."
Bell added, "We have people whose kids are in prison and they are having to pay off the gangs outside the prison just so their kids are safe."
Carter Elliott, a Georgetown private attorney who often has represented inmates and their families, said he was not surprised by the latest tragedy.
Prison officials "had to know something like this was inevitable," said Elliott. "It's just getting worse and worse."
Lack of staffing has a lot to do with the violence, Elliott said. "Every time I go to one of these prisons to interview an inmate, it's just scary. You see so few corrections officers' cars in the parking lots. It doesn't make you feel real safe.
"Right now, if you aren't in a gang, if you don't have a weapon, I don't know how you survive," Elliott said. "The gangs are running the jails."
In late February, Gov. Henry McMaster declared a "state of emergency" at S.C. prisons. The declaration was to allow prison officials to begin working with outside law enforcement agencies to cut down on the use of cellphones in prisons, where they are banned. Cellphones — which help inmates carry out illegal acts — are one factor in the rise of violence at state prisons, officials have said.
In January, The State reported 12 inmates had been killed in S.C. prisons in 2017, the highest number in years.
Thus far this year, at least nine inmates have been slain.