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Lessons learned from the biggest prison riot in South Carolina history

Because contraband cell phones played such a major role in the 2018 Lee Correctional riot, SCDC knew they had to up their investigative game


A police vehicle sits outside the Lee Correctional Institution on Monday, April 16, 2018, in Bishopville, S.C. Multiple inmates were killed and others seriously injured amid fighting between prisoners inside the maximum security prison in South Carolina.

AP Photo/Sean Rayford

By Brian Bolchoz

On April 15, 2018, what started as a fight between rival gangs at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, escalated into one of the bloodiest prison riots in U.S. history. When the melee ended, seven inmates lay dead and 17 more were badly injured, many of them stabbed or slashed by improvised blades. According to The New York Times, the riot was “sparked by gangs within the prison who were warring over territory, money and contraband.”

The Lee prison riot was an eye-opener for corrections managers across America, not merely because of the death toll but also because of the role contraband cell phones played in the incident. The steps that the South Carolina Department of Corrections has taken in the aftermath provide a powerful case study on how correctional institutions are transforming the way they handle security – bolstering physical security measures and managing digital evidence collected from contraband phones is proving an invaluable means of getting ahead of the violence curve within facilities and in outside communities. These findings provide a useful roadmap for corrections institutions everywhere to reach the common goal of protecting their employees, inmates and the public.

What was learned

The incident at Lee was a wake-up call for SCDC to update their system on several levels:

1. Infrastructure: Bolstering video surveillance across the entire corrections system in South Carolina was one of the first steps taken. Following the Lee incident, it was clear that the installation of additional and better-quality cameras was necessary.

Locking mechanisms and doors that were able to be compromised and overcome during the incident were also addressed. Instead of having to open the doors with a key, new electronic locking mechanisms, which can be controlled by a button from a control tower, were low-hanging fruit that could be addressed right away.

2. Staffing: Not having sufficient staff on hand to adequately control the incarcerated was also seen as one of the problems leading to the Lee incident. Without proper oversight, prisoners feel emboldened to do whatever they feel they can get away with, including acts of violence.

At the time, South Carolina was facing what many agencies across the country are dealing with today: They simply didn’t have enough certified staff to do the job. While this has been an ongoing problem that corrections facilities have faced for years, Lee has provided the impetus for facilities everywhere to reevaluate their staffing problems and seek the funding and outreach necessary to solve the problem.

3. Technology: Perhaps one of the biggest revelations to come out of the Lee riots was just how widespread the contraband cell phone problem is in correctional facilities across America. During the investigation, security sweeps of Lee and other institutions yielded boxes of contraband cell phones that were delivered to my team. At the time, however, we lacked the trained personnel and technology to do anything with them. We had some technology, but we didn’t really have the people trained up on how to use them.

All of that has now changed thanks to the addition of new digital intelligence solutions and training. Digital intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types, including smartphones, computers and the cloud, and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage and obtain insights from this data to run their investigations more efficiently.

A study in digital transformation

The incident at Lee was the nudge officials needed to give us the green light to digitally transform our entire investigative team. There was just a huge push at that point because we had all of these phones, which the officials of course wanted us to investigate, but we, unfortunately, didn’t have the capability, staffing or equipment to start processing 200 to 300 phones and then pore through all of that information to make connections.

But following Lee, we started moving a lot faster on the technology and implementation of our analysis unit. Not only did we upgrade our technology but we also started hiring on the analysts we needed and training them on the new technology. This meant our team was now capable of doing deep dives into people and their communities on the web as well as their phones and other smart devices.

Since that time, SCDC’s Investigations Division has gone from 15 or 20 investigators covering 21 or 22 institutions, to a unit with more than 40 investigators and 10 full-time criminal analysts. They are even getting ready to launch their own forensics lab to handle the thousands of phones that are being confiscated in state facilities each year.

Information sharing is the key to disrupting criminal networks

Under their new workflow, confiscating cell phones and then analyzing the data is helping to stop the “business as usual” from being carried out by incarcerated individuals. When phones are intercepted, analysts are now going in and extracting information, analyzing it, and putting it together with other intelligence they’ve already recovered. This is allowing them to build visualizations of the relationships between the incarcerated on the inside and the individuals in the community who are running drugs and committing other crimes. They then share this information with local authorities so that they’re likewise up to speed on the criminals operating in their communities.

Corrections investigators uncover the largest racketeering case in state history

A recent racketeering case shows just how valuable this collaboration between corrections investigators and outside agencies can be.

Analysts at the SCDC Intelligence Division played a large part in breaking the largest racketeering case in the state of South Carolina’s history by poring over cell phone data and social media information, digging deeper, and deciding that something wasn’t right. Sharing this information and collaborating with outside agencies to help investigate the case further, the team found out that drug dealing, murders and money laundering were all going on, and it involved incarcerated individuals who were sitting in their cells, coordinating and operating these crimes via their cell phones.

In the end, a federal grand jury returned a 147-count superseding indictment against 40 defendants across South Carolina. The indictments included the incarcerated orchestrating murder, kidnapping, drugs and firearms distribution from prison, netting millions in illegal drugs.

The need for a digital intelligence platform and strategy

So, how should correctional facilities address the contraband cell phone problem? Some have suggested simply “jamming” cell phone signals within corrections facilities, but doing so would make the cell phones used by staff members inoperable. And the tech does not exist at present to jam signals in such a finite area as a single facility. Signals would also be jammed outside the facilities, making this option impractical. In addition, totally stopping the influx of contraband phones is all but impossible. A certain number of phones are always going to slip through.

Using digital intelligence solutions to access the information collected from those phones, however, is a powerful and practical solution. To better protect those incarcerated, their staff and the general public, corrections managers need an end-to-end solution that includes:

  • Collect and review capabilities to discover and gather evidence from multiple points in mobile devices, computers and the cloud – whether connected to a network or not – while protecting the custodian privacy.
  • Investigative analytics to master the complexity of data and reveal actionable insights, accelerating time to resolution and improving your investigative operations.
  • Manage and control functions that maintain federal compliance using a customizable digital evidence management solution, ensuring that the right people have access to the right data at the right time.
  • Special services that provide access to a global team of professional domain experts, who provide the technical knowledge, custom-fit solutions and training needed to accomplish their mission.

If corrections facilities are not employing a digital solution in their everyday fight against contraband phones, they’re going to have safety issues inside their prisons and in their communities on the outside. Criminals are no longer just going out on the street and running up behind somebody and stealing a purse, or going into a gas station and robbing the clerk. Many crimes are now a lot more sophisticated and have a lot more planning involved, which means the crimes are a lot harder to identify because they’re “hiding” behind the technology. Digital technology, however, provides the means to access those networks and disrupt the criminal activities that are leading to violence.

The road forward post 9/11

After 9/11, there was this big push toward intelligence-led policing and the phrase “if you see something, say something” became commonplace. Agencies were gathering information, but a big part of what they were missing out on was the corrections piece and the mountains of information held on contraband phones that were not being tapped. Today, law enforcement is realizing information gained through contraband cell phones is a necessary tool in the fight against violent crimes and domestic terrorism.

When we talk about information and intelligence, most people automatically think of global intelligence, i.e. we need some intelligence on Iran or China. However, few people think about domestic intelligence. This is the intelligence that is hiding in prisons today.

Domestic intelligence deals with things that are right here at home – human trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, gangs – the things that are in people’s backyards that they don’t generally think about. The amount of illegal activities being carried out by those behind bars, however, is amazing. And this untapped resource is a major piece in solving the violent crimes puzzle.

Domestic intelligence is only part of the solution

It is important to understand, however, that working with digital intelligence is a separate skill set. Many corrections managers mistakenly believe they’re going to extract this information, put it through this program, and it’s going come out on the other end with the answers to all of their questions – who committed the crime and how they did it. What they fail to grasp, however, is that technology is just one piece of the puzzle.

Domestic intelligence is a tool to help you get to an end result, but you have to be willing to put that extracted information with the rest of the other intelligence you’re gathering to build the bigger picture. This is where training and having qualified personnel in place that can best leverage the technology is critical.

Building efficient workflows

Workflow is also extremely important to build the best cases possible. This is where end-to-end digital solutions that provide a clear and auditable chain of evidence really shine by ensuring that any evidence gleaned is secured in such a way that it cannot be refuted in court.

For example, if you have 1,500 phones coming in that need to be processed, how do you manage that without a workflow in place to properly check them in as evidence?

Having the proper workflow not only provides the proper evidentiary documentation, it also makes your investigations more efficient and effective. If you are maintaining a proper workflow you can identify the original location the phone came from. Once data has been extracted from the device, you can control where the data and the device are going to be stored, and who has access to it. This ensures the digital chain of evidence remains secure while providing your analysts and investigators with documented evidence sources they can go back to throughout their review if needed.

Building a safer strategy

Making correctional institutions safer on the inside and communities safer on the outside starts with disrupting the illicit activities made possible by contraband phones. Digital intelligence solutions provide an integral piece of the puzzle in stopping these crimes through the sharing of information across corrections networks and with outside agencies, but they are only part of the solution.

Physical searches, electronic surveillance, K-9 unit involvement, and drone interdiction technologies are all part of the larger solution that corrections managers must ramp up to ensure the incarcerated, corrections staff and surrounding communities are kept safe.

Next: How digital intelligence tools can stop crime from the inside out

About the author

Brian Bolchoz is a retired law enforcement officer with over 25 years of service who, at the time of the Lee incident, was deputy director of the Investigations Division in South Carolina. His team was responsible for investigating the Lee incident. He now serves as a corrections safety consultant for Cellebrite and other entities.