COLUMBIA — Another hostage situation in just over three months at the same state maximum security prison have South Carolina senators wondering if they need to have Corrections Department officials answer questions about the facility.
Inmates held an officer for about five hours Thursday at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. He was released with minor injuries. In the past four years, four large fights and three hostage situations have broken out at the prison.
“If it was a system-wide problem, you would be hearing about these situations at other places, right?” said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and a member of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee.
Massey said Correction Department officials have not told them of any serious problems that needed additional money over the past few years. He said he wants to hear from prison officials so he can figure out if the spate of violence needs to be addressed.
Both recent hostage situations happened after dinner, when inmates are winding down and just one guard is on duty, authorities said.
Sen. John Scott also wants to know if there is a lack of security at the prison, or if the type of inmates sent there need to be changed so there isn’t as much trouble.
“We’re going to take a look at it,” said Scott, D-Columbia.
Investigators are still trying to sort out what happened at the prison Thursday. They still don’t know how many prisoners participated, how they were able to overpower the officer or their motivation, Corrections Department spokesman Clark Newsom said.
“It was a very disorganized effort, which makes us feel even further it was not planned in any way,” Newsom said today.
The hostage-taking happened in a dorm of roughly 100 inmates. Not all the prisoners were part of the disturbance. Some used contraband cellphones to call the main number at the prison and give information to authorities, including how the guard was hidden in a broom closet, Newsom said.
That information was used by SWAT team members that swarmed the prison and ended the standoff, Newsom said.
The prison will remain on lockdown throughout the weekend as investigators question inmates and search for contraband, authorities said.
The Lee Correctional Institution houses about 1,800 inmates and has had its share of problems since opening in 1993. The year after it started accepting inmates, more than 100 prisoners angry about conditions refused to leave the exercise yard. That standoff was settled with no violence or hostages.
There have been four hostage situations since 1999. No serious injuries have been reported. Prison officials also have reported four large fights involving inmates in just over four years. Twice, in May 2008 and September 2009, guards had to abandon a wing where a fight was taking place and launch tear gas inside to calm the inmates down.
Taking hostages is a risky gamble that never works. The crime is listed under South Carolina’s two strikes law, so anyone already in prison for a violent or serious offense faces a life sentence if convicted.
Newsom said the Lee County prison can be dangerous because it houses violent offenders serving decades-long or life sentences, and those inmates will take advantage of an opportunity without worrying about the consequences.
“You’re dealing with some very smart folks who are lifelong criminals and have absolutely nothing to lose,” Newsom said. “You are outnumbered and sometimes things can happen.”