SC prison system seeks approval of $6M settlement over Lee Correctional riot

The settlement request comes more than three years after the deadliest prison riot in the U.S. in 25 years

By Emily Bohatch
The State 
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Department of Corrections is seeking approval for a $6 million settlement with the victims and their families of the deadly 2018 prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution.

Corrections is asking the State Fiscal Accountability Authority to approve the settlement to end more than 80 lawsuits that were filed in the wake of the riot, which left seven dead and more than a dozen injured, according to documents filed on the Authority's website.

The SFAA is scheduled to discuss the settlement during its meeting Tuesday morning.

Seven inmates were killed, and at least 17 more wounded, in a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on early Monday, April 16, 2018, in Bishopville, S.C.
Seven inmates were killed, and at least 17 more wounded, in a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on early Monday, April 16, 2018, in Bishopville, S.C. (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections was not able to be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

The request for a settlement comes more than three years after the riot, which was dubbed the deadliest prison riot in the United States in the last 25 years.

Those killed were identified as Eddie Gaskins, Joshua Jenkins, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, Damonte Rivera, Raymond Scott and Corey Scott. The fighting lasted for about eight hours.

Shortly after the riot, lawsuits filed against the Department of Corrections poured in, painting grisly scenes of what happened during those hours as rioting spread. Inmates reported laying helpless for hours, calling for help after being stabbed. They described attempting to barricade themselves inside of prison cells whose doors did not lock. Some inmates climbed over a razor wire fence to escape attackers, they said.

Lawsuit after lawsuit painted a picture of a dangerously understaffed facility with fatal infrastructure problems that led to the prisoners' deaths.

After the riot, Corrections leaders were quick to blame the event on cell phones.

"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated," prisons Director Bryan Stirling said the day after the riot, adding officials suspect cellphones were used to inform inmates in the second and third dorms that a fight had broken out in the first.

But months later the former deputy director of the prison system said there were warning signs ahead of the riot, and staff members who warned the higher-ups were ignored.

"Nothing was being done, and I can tell you it was never reported to me or my staff or my regional directors," former Deputy Director Michael McCall told The State. McCall regularly met with wardens and monitored activity at prisons across the state. "...Whenever they heard from the employees that these inmates were making tons of shanks, that should have been a red flag."

The prison's former warden pointed to chronic understaffing and overcrowding inside the prison caused by a massive transfer of inmates shortly before the riot. In his lawsuit, the former warden said he was pushed out of the department in order to "cover up mistakes, errors and negligence on the part of the command structure of SCDC" which caused the April 2018 riot.

Later, prosecutors said the riot was gang-inspired and started over stolen contraband.

Department of Corrections officials finished their investigation into the incident about a year after it happened.

In December 2020, 29 inmates were charged for their involvement in the riot, including three who were charged with murder. The more than 70 charges against the inmates also included 21 charges of conspiracy, 19 charges of assault and battery by mob first-degree where death results, four charges of assault and battery resulting in bodily injury, and 24 charges of prisoners carrying a weapon.
(c)2021 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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