Inmates at Lieber state prison marked James Belli as prey as soon as he landed in a maximum-security cell block meant for murderers, rapists and other violent criminals. Slight, slim and pale, the Summerville teen was fresh meat in a den of predators.
What happened to him at Lieber reveals a dark and dangerous world behind the brick walls and barbed wire at one of South Carolina’s toughest prisons. It unveils a place where the most violent prisoners ruled the roost, guards suspected one another of corruption and corrections officials turned a blind eye to cancers in their midst, court documents show.
Belli’s family knew none of this when they turned the wayward teen in to police in late 2005 to face burglary and larceny charges, hoping it would straighten him out. Instead, he became a target for extortion at Lieber, roughed up and shaken down by other inmates.
Belli, 19, had served just a few months of his eight-year sentence when prisoners attacked him on Aug. 23, 2006. One man plunged a homemade shank into Belli’s neck — again and again. Belli died the next day.
His family’s quest for answers, along with a civil lawsuit, has yielded a bounty of documents and testimony that raise fresh questions about prison officials’ handling of events leading up to Belli’s death and their failure to protect him from harm.
Court documents also paint a picture of a violent and corrupt prison wing where gang members extorted fellow inmates and sold drugs, allegedly with help from two guards.
Corrections officials deny the allegations, though the state chose to settle a lawsuit brought by Belli’s mother for $450,000 this year rather that go to trial.
Now, a federal grand jury is said to be investigating the goings-on at Lieber at the time of Belli’s death. Federal prosecutors would not confirm or deny the probe. State corrections officials declined comment on Belli’s case, citing the prospect of a grand jury probe.
Read more in Sunday's print editions of The Post and Courier.