BISHOPVILLE, S.C. — Gangs fighting over territory most likely triggered seven hours of violence that left seven people dead and 17 injured at a maximum security prison containing some of the state's most dangerous convicts, authorities said Monday.
Clashes among inmates at Lee Correctional Institution here erupted about 7:15 p.m. Sunday, state Corrections Department chief Bryan Stirling said at a news conference. The fighting spread to three housing units, but no officers were wounded, he said.
Stirling defended the length of time it took to put down the disturbance, saying law enforcement officers had to muster at the housing units one at a time, retaking control and placing inmates back in the cells. Such efforts routinely can take 90 minutes for just one dorm, he said.
"We gathered as many people as we could as quickly as we could and went in when we thought it was safe," Stirling said.
An inmate at the scene told AP that correctional officers did not attempt to halt the inmate-on-inmate violence as bodies "literally stacked on top of each other." The inmate, who said most of the inmates had gang affiliations, exchanged messages on condition of anonymity because he wasn't supposed to have a cellphone and feared retribution from other inmates.
Stirling said teams entering the housing units faced no resistance from the inmates. He said order was completely restored by 3 a.m., and that department's police service unit and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division were investigating the unrest.
South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat, called the riot a "symptom" of the problems facing the criminal justice system.
"A mass casualty incident inside a correctional facility is simply unacceptable," Rutherford tweeted. "Safety — for inmates, SCDC employees, and the public — must be a priority. Rioting like this is a symptom our criminal justice system is broken and needs reform now."
Family members of inmates who began gathering at the facility Monday were provided little information. The names of the deceased were released shortly before noon.
Lee County Coroner Larry Logan told the Associated Press he arrived at the scene to find melees throughout much of the prison. He said it appeared most of the deaths were a result of stabbing or slashing. Some victims may have been beaten to death, he said, and autopsies will be conducted to confirm how each man was killed.
“How else are you going to die in prison? They don’t have guns,” Logan said.
Stirling has been pressing for the technical power and administrative authority to block cellphone signals from the prison. He said cellphones allow gang leaders to continue criminal operations while incarcerated.
The prison, which opened 25 years ago and holds about 1,300 of some of South Carolina’s most violent offenders, is no stranger to violence. Three weeks ago, inmates overpowered a guard, holding him hostage and taking control of part of a dorm for about 90 minutes. The guard was released uninjured.
In February, one inmate fatally stabbed another.
On Monday, Lee County Fire and Rescue said it assisted with the "mass casualty incident" at the prison. Florence County EMS, Kershaw County EMS, Darlington County EMS, Lexington County EMS and Hartsville Rescue and a private ambulance service also responded.
The prison is about 50 miles east of Columbia. The state capital is home to the Kirkland Correctional Institution, where four inmates were fatally strangled a year ago. One of the two inmates accused of the crime said he killed them so he would be moved to death row.
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: WLTX-TV in Columbia, S.C.