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South Carolina gives initial OK to $6M prison riot deal

The 2018 riot raged for more than seven hours at Lee Correctional Institution, leaving 7 inmates dead and more than a dozen injured

Lee Correctional Institution

In this Wednesday, April 10, 2019 file photo, Prison staff work at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C.

AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

Associated Press
By Meg Kinnard

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina officials gave initial approval Tuesday to a $6 million settlement to resolve dozens of prisoner lawsuits against the Department of Corrections following a riot that killed seven inmates.

With one abstention due to a conflict of interest, the State Fiscal Accountability Authority voted unanimously to approve the deal, which it said would work toward resolving a total of 81 lawsuits filed by or for inmates in state and federal courts against the prison system.

The 2018 riot raged for more than seven hours at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Columbia. Most of the slain were stabbed or slashed; others appeared to have been beaten. One inmate described bodies “literally stacked on top of each other, like some macabre woodpile.”

Corrections officials have blamed the violence — the worst U.S. prison riot in 25 years — in part on illegal cellphones, which Department Director Bryan Stirling has said represent the greatest security threat inside prisons because they give inmates an unmonitored way to communicate with the outside world and each other.

Stirling told The Associated Press after Tuesday’s vote that the deal next goes to the plaintiffs for signatures, before a court decides how to divvy up the money.

Carter Elliott, an attorney for some of the inmates who sued the state, called the offer “an important step toward recognizing the fundamental human rights of the inmates involved in this tragedy.”

Rep. Justin Bamberg, another attorney who has represented inmates in the riot litigation, said he appreciated Stirling’s leadership following the “tragic” incident.

“Now everyone can focus on healing without needless litigation, and the state can move forward with its goal of improving the South Carolina Department of Corrections,” Bamberg said in a statement to AP.

For several months leading up to the insurrection, the AP communicated with a Lee prisoner who used a contraband cellphone to offer insight into life behind bars. Describing frequent gang fights with homemade weapons, he said prisoners roamed freely, had easy access to cellphones and drugs, and were often left to police themselves.

Just after the riots, both that inmate and an attorney who frequently works in the state’s prisons told the AP that the illegal cellphones were frequently furnished by corrections officers themselves. A person familiar with the agency’s operations backed up those notions, telling the AP that delivery trucks, required to be inspected upon entering prison grounds, often ferried cellphones and other contraband.

Since the riot, numerous security improvements have been implemented across the prisons system and specifically at Lee, including a $1 million cell door locking system, 50-foot-high nets to limit contraband from being thrown over the fences and systems to detect cellphones and drones, which could be used to ferry in contraband.

Federal communications regulations continue to prevent the full use of the cell signal-jamming technology Stirling wants, however.

The number of maximum-security inmates at Lee has also dwindled from more than 1,300 at the time of the riot to 270, as of this week, according to Corrections officials. Stirling said inmate assaults on each other, as well as on prison staff, have continually decreased in the years since the riot.

“I think our staff has been working hard on safety and security,” Stirling told AP. “And we’ve been working hard on getting funding for rehabilitation and reentry programs. There are avenues, if people want to better themselves when they come to the Department of Corrections.”