My brother's a prisoner at Bishopville. He saw that deadly riot coming

Lee Correctional Institution was home this week to the most deadly U.S. prison violence in 25 years.
Lee Correctional Institution was home this week to the most deadly U.S. prison violence in 25 years. 2013 State file photo

I know you don’t care, or not enough, that seven prisoners were killed and an additional 17 injured during a riot this week at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina.

I know that despite declarations that many in our area are followers of Jesus, who admonished us to love even prisoners, you don’t care. It probably doesn't bother you the riot happened after officials put members of rival gangs in the same dormitory at Lee, even though those officials claim the eruption of violence was caused by a fight over contraband.

I know legislators don’t care, which is why they show no urgency to fix under-staffing that has plagued Carolinas prisons for several years, a problem that has made conditions increasingly dire for the incarcerated and for those who earn a living inside those walls.

Those words may feel like an unfair, self-righteous condemnation of people who include volunteers for prison ministries and literacy programs and elected and law enforcement officials who have spoken up about criminal justice reform.

It’s not. I know because I count myself among those who haven’t cared enough. I’m as guilty as everyone else. I care about Lee because one of my brothers has been there for years. He’s serving a 16-year sentence for his role in an attempted armed robbery that ended in the death of a fellow drug dealer. Just months ago, he was in the prison dorm where a young man was stabbed to death by a gaggle of prisoners. I was sent photos taken by a contraband cell phone of the bloody scene. It may be true that some prisoners use phones for dastardly ends, but many use them to document the awful conditions they know must be changed.

As far as my family knows, my brother James was not in the dorm where Sunday’s riot took place. But for hours on Monday, we wondered if he was dead or injured. When we saw his name was not among those who had been stabbed or beaten to death, we breathed a little easier, cracked a few jokes.

It left me conflicted, ashamed even, that I was celebrating in the wake of so much horror – a horror James had been predicting would occur. Officials say the riot was caused by a turf war over cell phones and other contraband. But James had been detailing to me for more than a year the more likely culprit: deteriorating conditions at Lee. The staffing levels are so low, officers don’t make required rounds. That left prisoners inside their cells longer each day. Some weeks, they got to shower twice; other times they went without showers for up to nine days. Prisoners knew officers would not come to the rescue if they were attacked – which provided a major incentive to join gangs as a means of self-preservation.

Productive programs that can stimulate prisoners’ minds and bodies – a real public service, given that most prisoners are eventually freed – have been curtailed. Some prisoners have gone for up to a year without sneakers. There has been a long-term water outage in part of the prison, according to another prisoner I spoke with. Those small indignities add up, yet some officials feign surprise when those treated inhumanely behave in inhumane ways.

After every incident, prisoners are locked down longer, which leads to more resentment and unrest and more violence, a vicious cycle.

People in positions of power know these things. But they don’t care, or not nearly enough.