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After South Carolina riot, 48 'problematic' inmates shipped to private Mississippi prison

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Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, where seven inmates were killed and 17 other seriously injured in fights between prisoners. File/Sean Rayford/AP

Two months after seven people died during a South Carolina prison riot, the state will send 48 "problematic" inmates to a private correctional facility in Mississippi, officials said Friday.

Gang territory and contraband disputes were seen as central causes of the April 15 violence at Lee Correctional Institution that also injured 22 prisoners. It was the deadliest American prison riot in 25 years.

It was unclear what role, if any, the transferred inmates played in the disturbance or how many were at Lee at the time, S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said. The four dozen inmates came from facilities throughout the state.

Violence had been on the rise across the system but Stirling said the riot prompted the state to make the transfer. A statement from his department said the inmates were "problematic" but did not explain how they were chosen.

"Talking to people across the nation, this is something they suggested we look into," he said. "It’s one more thing we are doing to improve the safety of the prison system."

The inmates' family members were notified Friday that they were being taken to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss. The men's prison is operated by Nashville-based CoreCivic, which has 13,000 employees nationwide.

It will cost the state $70 daily for each to stay in the private facility, prisons spokesman Dexter Lee said. That's $3,360 each day for the group.

The prisoners include Christopher Moore, who is serving a life sentence for the 2014 murder of a Chester city councilman, and Stanley Oliver, who also was sentenced to life for a Richland County triple murder in 2005. Of the 48, nine were incarcerated at Lee during the riot.

The Corrections Department "will periodically review each inmate's status to determine if a transfer back to South Carolina is justified," the agency spokesman added.

A handful of inmates had been sent to other states in the past, Stirling said, but never this many.

Former Corrections Director Jon Ozmint said he wanted to take such action during the eight years he led the department, but the funding wasn't available. It's an ideal option for a perennially understaffed prison system, he said.

Inmates are typically identified for such transfers through investigations, gang intelligence and disciplinary histories, Ozmint said. When they are sent out of state, he said, they can no longer order violence against others.

"It's a better option than putting the shot callers and gang leaders in (solitary confinement)," he said. "It puts them in general population, but it takes them out of their criminal enterprise. It separates gang leaders from their ability to hurt people."

About 300 prisoners had been bused from another state facility to Lee shortly before the riot this spring. Authorities said the move was not an attempt to put some of South Carolina's most violent offenders and gang members under one roof. But some observers and attorneys called it the key ingredient for a "powder keg" that exploded in such a violent way.

The fighting spread across two housing units as correctional officers retreated and called in reinforcements. It ended seven hours later after a tactical unit went inside the prison in Bishopville, about 125 miles north of Charleston.

Some survivors and the slain inmates' family members also alleged in lawsuits that unlocked doors contributed to the series of gang-fueled clashes and other confrontations in which prisoners were stabbed with makeshift knives and left to bleed to death.

Friday's development on the prisoners' move to Mississippi was the latest effort enacted in response to the ordeal.

The S.C. Department of Corrections' policing unit and the State Law Enforcement Division were tasked with a criminal investigation into the riot. SLED spokesman Thom Berry said Friday the probe remains open but he knew of no charges that had been filed as a result.

Homicides and serious assaults within the confines of South Carolina prisons have been on the rise in recent years. A dozen people were slain in 2017 — more than the five previous years combined — and the total this year was on a pace to top that.

Officials pinned the dangerous trend on the proliferation of illegal cellphones and drugs — the currency of society behind bars. Outsiders hurl the contraband goods into prison yards, visitors smuggle them in, and correctional officers and other staffers hand off secret deliveries in exchange for payment.

In the weeks since the riot, though, the state has erected new netting along some prison perimeters, announced federal indictments of employees who betray their public duty and ramped up efforts to get federal approval of equipment that blocks cellphone signals.

A drone pilot also was hired to patrol prisons from the air.

Stirling, the Corrections Department director, said officials had considered transferring troublesome inmates out of state before the riot, but an executive order signed by the governor afterward helped pave the way for the measure. Other states have made similar moves with troublemakers behind bars, he said.

"This is Corrections 101," Stirling said.

Gregory Yee contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

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