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Four plead guilty to role in deadly 2018 prison riot in S.C.

Seven inmates were killed and dozens were wounded in the riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on the night of April 15, 2018

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They are among the first of 48 inmates charged in the riot to plead guilty.

AP Photo/Sean Rayford

By Ted Clifford
The State

BISHOPVILLE, S.C. — Four South Carolina inmates pleaded guilty Thursday to their role in the worst American prison riot in 25 years.

Three inmates pleaded guilty to having contraband weapons during the riot. A fourth inmate pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree assault and battery by mob and one count of conspiracy. All four lived in the same housing unit at the time of the riot.

They are among the first of 48 inmates charged in the riot to plead guilty.

“It’s the start of the finale, obviously we still have more to go but we’re going to keep working through the process,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said at a press conference Thursday.

Seven inmates were killed and dozens were wounded in the riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on the night of April 15, 2018.

Leading up to the riot, Lee Correctional Institution had been plagued by short staffing while contraband, including drugs, guns and weapons, were spread throughout the prison.

The explosion of violence was triggered when a group of inmates robbed and murdered 44-year-old Michael Milledge in his cell. It soon broke out into prison wide spree of murder and mayhem as inmates from rival gangs attempted attacked each other throughout the prison.

“These inmates took part in violent mayhem fueled by contraband and illegal cellphones and are now being held accountable,” Stirling said. “This is just the beginning. We intend to prosecute everyone charged with crimes involving the Lee riot.”

The inmates who pleaded guilty were:

  • Mike Smalls, 28, pleaded guilty to one charge of second-degree assault and battery by mob and one charge of conspiracy. He was sentenced to 18 years on the mob charge and five years for conspiracy. These charges are concurrent and Smalls received three years credit for time served, according to the Department of Corrections.
  • Rahim F. Carter, 40, pleaded guilty to possession of contraband. He was sentenced to five years and received three years credit for time served.
  • Tyrone Lewis Jr., 34, pleaded guilty to possession of contraband. He was sentenced to three years and received three years credit for time served.
  • Arsenio Donta C. Colclough, 36, pleaded guilty to possession of contraband. He was sentenced to three years credit for time served. Colclough is currently housed in the Sumter-Lee Detention Center on unrelated charges.

Since 2018, 48 inmates have been charged for their role in the riot, including several for murder. Since then, one inmate died in a shooting and five have pleaded guilty. Their cases were prosecuted by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.

“We just want to make sure that justice is done. Sometimes it takes three months, 10 months, sometimes it takes almost 5 to 10 years.... We’re not gonna rush it, but we’re going to do it,” said Barney Giese, a special prosecutor for the 3rd Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Giese, a former 5th Circuit solicitor, said he anticipates more pleas throughout the summer.

“SLED is committed to assisting state partners like SCDC, with the hope that one day what happened at Lee Correctional five years ago can be prevented in the future,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said.

Since 2018, the Department of Corrections has invested heavily in preventing a similar riot, Stirling said. The department has replaced cell doors and raised starting salaries for corrections officers from $35,000 to up to $53,000. As a result, Stirling said, there are 300 more corrections officers than this time last year, with a further 300 preparing to begin training at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.

The Department of Corrections is also testing a plan that would allow the agency to block specific mobile devices inside prisons. Law enforcement has previously blamed cellphones possessed by prisoners for turning the attack inside of Lee into a mob riot, as inmates used their phones to communicate between different dormitories.

Giese said that they were first looking to wrap up the cases stemming from dormitory F-1, where inmates affiliated with the Bloods gang outnumbered other groups and sought to take revenge on their rivals, the Crips, who were forced to barricade themselves in one cell.

All of the inmates in Thursday’s pleas are still incarcerated and their new sentences will be incorporated into their existing ones, according to the Department of Corrections.

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