Sean Rayford/Associated Press
Seven inmates were killed and 17 others injured at a rural South Carolina prison in a series of fights that were fueled in part by contraband cellphones.
The fights at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville were a byproduct of gang activity inside the prison, facilitated by contraband cellphones, said Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, at a Monday press conference. Gang members use cellphones thrown over the prison fence or smuggled inside prison walls to conduct illegal business inside and outside the facility, he said.
“What we believe is that this was all about territory, this was about contraband, this was about cellphones,” Mr. Stirling said. “These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they’re incarcerated.”
Gov. Henry McMaster and Mr. Stirling reiterated a request that the Federal Communications Commission allow the jamming of cellphone signals in prisons.
has toured the Lee facility and coordinated a February forum with Mr. Stirling and others on the topic, saying he is in favor of finding ways to rid prisons of illegal cellphones but concerned about the risks of also blocking legitimate wireless users. The FCC said Monday that it has adopted new rules that will allow for quicker deployment of interdiction systems in prisons, and is studying additional tools for combating contraband phones.
The fights at the prison began at 7:15 p.m. Sunday and lasted until 2:55 a.m. Monday, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. No employees or law-enforcement officers were injured, the department said. Emergency workers from a half-dozen regional agencies assisted in treating the injured inmates.
The prison is the largest of the state’s maximum-security facilities and is operating at 96% capacity with 1,600 inmates, according to state records. Last month, prisoners took over a dorm and held a corrections officer hostage for more than an hour, according to the department.
There were about 40 officers on duty on Sunday night, Mr. Stirling said. The fights broke out while inmates were being counted and returning to their cells. There was a delay in law enforcement retaking control of the dorms because officers are trained not to enter a chaotic situation until there is sufficient backup, he said.
“We’re going to take that dorm back with force,” he said. “We’re not going to put our officers and other staff in harm’s way.”
Lee has implemented a double-staffing policy at shift changes, so that officers on one shift would stay an hour late and officers on the next shift would arrive an hour early so that the prison was staffed at critical times, including when inmates were being counted and taken to their cells at the end of the day, Mr. Stirling said. As a result, there were 44 officers on duty at Lee instead of 20, he said.
It isn’t clear whether staffing shortage was a factor in the deaths, but Mr. Stirling has said previously that low staffing levels at prisons statewide are dangerous for officers and inmates and commonly force dorms to remain on lockdown for hours at a time.
Mr. Stirling has said a tight labor market and low pay make it difficult to staff prisons. Nearly one in three prison jobs in the state were vacant last year. Legislators have allocated funds to boost starting pay at maximum-security prisons to $34,596, up 24% in the past four years, according to corrections records.
Former Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, visited Lee several years ago to highlight conditions at what she said is the state’s most dangerous facility. Mr. Stirling worked as her former gubernatorial chief of staff.
Write to Valerie Bauerlein at firstname.lastname@example.org