Mom of strangled SC inmate questions how attacks slipped notice

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said all four inmates were killed within 30 minutes

By Seanna Adcox
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The mother of an inmate strangled in a South Carolina prison questions how two convicts serving life sentences could kill four people without attracting guards' attention.

"The prison guards should've been watching. This should've never happened," Becky Kelley of Saint Albans, West Virginia, told The Associated Press on Monday.

According to arrest warrants, Denver Simmons, 35, and Jacob Philip, 26, lured each of the four inmates into a cell at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia on Friday morning and worked together to attack and strangle them. Two of the inmates were also beaten or stabbed with a broken broomstick. Simmons and Philip confessed after the bodies were found.

All four were killed within 30 minutes, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.

Kelley also questions why the convicted murderers, who have no possibility of parole, were housed in the same dorm as her son. The prison's chaplain told her the two claimed they killed inmates they considered weak, but she said her son wasn't weak.

"You know it took two guys to do one guy at a time," she said.

She said she's gotten no other answers.

Kelley's son, 35-year-old Jason Kelley, was expected to be released in 2020. He was imprisoned in 2013 for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. Another strangled inmate was also slated for release in 2020, while another was expected to be released later this year. One was serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder but insane.

Becky Kelley said she hasn't seen her son in two years, but they wrote each other weekly, and "he was reading the Bible and going to church. He was really changing."

According to the arrest warrants, cameras "partially captured" the crimes. State law enforcement officials declined to answer questions about the ongoing investigation or release video.

Simmons and Philip, both charged with murder in the inmate killings, were transferred Friday to a maximum security unit in the prison. Privacy laws prevent comment on the type of dorm all six previously shared, Corrections spokeswoman Sommer Sharpe said.

The Kirkland prison serves several roles in South Carolina's system.

Simmons, 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, has been jailed since his 2007 arrest on charges he killed a woman he knew in Colleton County, took her debit card and ate pizza for lunch, then got her 13-year-old son from school and fatally shot him, too. He was sentenced in 2010 to two consecutive life terms.

Philip, 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, confessed in 2013 to strangling his girlfriend and her 8-year-old daughter in their Berkeley County home. At the time, the sailor was a student at the Nuclear Power Training School near Charleston.

Sen. Karl Allen, a member of the Senate Corrections committee, questions whether the inmates were properly classified and supervised. The Greenville Democrat plans to visit the prison soon.

Rep. Mike Pitts, a retired police officer, said he doesn't yet know what happened in this case but, in general, prison guards are vastly outnumbered.

"I don't fault the guards," said Pitts, R-Laurens. "It's hard to keep an eye on everybody, and it's very easy for one or two inmates to create a distraction."

Pitts, chairman of the House budget-writing panel for law enforcement agencies, said he's repeatedly warned his colleagues that a lack of funding is creating a dangerous situation for inmates and officers.

"When something happens, you've got to have bodies to react, and we don't have that," Pitts said.

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