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Armed inmates start riot at S.C. county jail

Multiple inmates started a fire by igniting bed sheets; the situation then turned into a riot as the inmates also armed themselves with blunt objects, Richland County deputies said

Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center

Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

Tracy Glantz/TNS

By Noah Feit
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — An investigation is underway after inmates rioted and started a fire at a jail in Columbia Sunday, according to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

At about 8 p.m., both deputies and members of the Columbia Fire Department responded to reports of a fire at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, the sheriff’s department said in a news release.

The fire had been started by multiple inmates who ignited bed sheets, the sheriff’s department said. The fire was set to ceiling boards in pod E of Unit Papa following a fight between two inmates in that unit, Richland County officials said Monday.

The situation then turned into a riot as the inmates also armed themselves with blunt objects, according to the release.

Before the fire, jail guards responded to the fight when several other inmates tried to force their way out of the cell, Richland County officials said. An incident report said the inmates were “aggressive and combative in nature, with one trying to strike a detention center officer with what appeared to be a piece of white metal in his hand,” according to Richland County officials.

One inmate broke one of the doors leading to where the fire was inside the jail, and firefighters had to force the door open before they extinguished the blaze, the sheriff’s department said.

Deputies assisted the jail’s guards by entering the location of the fire and securing all detainees in that area, according to the release. Forty inmates were detained, the sheriff’s department said.

Of those 40 inmates, 14 were charged with rioting, two were charged with arson, and one was charged with possession of contraband, the sheriff’s department said Monday.

The sheriff’s department originally said no inmates nor any guards were injured, but on Monday revised that to say that one inmate suffered smoke inhalation and was taken to a local hospital. Further information on that inmate’s condition was not available.

None of the inmates escaped during the fire/riot, according to the release.

Because of the fire, 16 inmates have been transferred from Unit Papa to another area of the jail, where they will be held until cosmetic damage to the unit is repaired, Richland County officials said.

There was no word about a motive for the riot and fire, but the incident is being investigated, the sheriff’s department said.

Problems at the jail

This is one of the latest incidents at the troubled jail where there have been several issues in 2023, including the attacks on multiple inmates, according to the sheriff’s department.

Earlier in November, the U.S. Department of Justice and and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina launched a civil rights investigation into the jail.

Gov. Henry McMaster , speaking to reporters Monday at a public event on the Congaree River , said he hopes those investigating the jail get to the bottom of the problems.

“People go to jail and go to prison as punishment, not for punishment,’’ said McMaster, a former state attorney general and federal prosecutor. “We are not supposed to have riots.’’

The investigation into whether conditions at the jail violated inmate’s civil rights comes as scrutiny has grown following deaths, attacks, escapes, severe understaffing and poor conditions inside of the Richland County facility. The jail houses individuals arrested in the city of Columbia and Richland County , as well as inmates from some other areas in the Midlands and some individuals arrested on federal charges.

The jail is managed by the Richland County government, not the sheriff’s department.

County officials previously pledged to make wide-ranging improvements to the jail, including restructuring leadership and increasing pay for staff. They have also pledged more than a million dollars to retrofit locks and renovate the kitchen and some common areas.

“Responding to crimes at the detention center is an everyday event for the sheriff’s department,” Sheriff Leon Lott said Monday. “Last night’s incident is not the first and will not be the last. We all need to understand that those in the detention center are there for a reason, they are accused of committing a crime. Our courts have determined that they are either a flight risk or a danger to the community. We will continue to investigate crimes within the detention center and make charges against those who continue their criminal behavior even while incarcerated.”

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