Joseph McFadden to be formally sworn in Friday as warden of Lieber state prison in Ridgeville (copy) (copy)

Joseph McFadden, former warden at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, has sued the state's prison system, alleging that he was unfairly blamed for an escape in July at the maximum-security Dorchester County facility he was leading at the time. File/Staff

Two former top commanders at Lieber Correctional Institution allege state officials labeled them scapegoats for an inmate's notorious prison break last summer.

Former Warden Joseph McFadden and Associate Warden James Blackwell said they were unfairly blamed and disciplined after Jimmy Causey broke through a fence with wirecutters thought to have been delivered by drone — an element of the July escape that made national headlines.

Neither employee was on duty at the time, and a later audit of the maximum-security Ridgeville prison found only "trivial" shortcomings in paperwork and housekeeping, the separate lawsuits filed by the men Tuesday in Dorchester County say.

They allege S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and another official targeted their jobs rather than take responsibility for broader system failures, such as Causey's placement in the general prison population despite a history of escape.

Both were cited for “negligence in the line of duty.”

McFadden was transferred to a smaller prison, and Blackwell retired under threat of firing, their lawsuits state.

Lewis Cromer, a Columbia attorney who is representing both men, said a state prison system beset by staff shortages cannot afford to lose such competent leaders.

"They're taking the rap for something that was not their fault," he said. "(Prison system officials) are too concerned about covering their own errors by scapegoating the few good people they have left."

Jeff Taillon, an agency spokesman, said he could not immediately comment on the accusations.

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SCDC press conference on Jimmy Causey (copy) (copy)

S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling (left) and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel (right) in July address the escape and capture of prison inmate Jimmy Causey. File/Staff

Causey, a convicted kidnapper and robber, was serving a life sentence on July 4 when he cut holes in fences and fled into the night, authorities have said. He had fashioned a dummy in his bed to fool correctional officers during head counts; his disappearance wasn't noticed until 18 hours later.

Stirling said Causey likely arranged outside help using a contraband cellphone and snipped through the fences using cutters delivered by a drone. He was caught two days later in Texas.

One prison employee was promptly fired, officials said. Cromer said a second worker was also fired.

Two outsiders were arrested on charges of aiding Causey's escape, and a third was charged with obstructing justice.

The lawsuits by McFadden and Blackwell, both correctional employees since the mid-1990s, said they had been tasked with improving conditions at Lieber.

Mirroring a problem throughout the system, the prison lacked proper manpower. On the day of the escape, 15 employees were on duty despite a 26-worker minimum required to properly run the facility, the lawsuits contend, adding the ideal staff size was 42. The prison, about 40 minutes north of Charleston, holds more than 1,100 inmates.

State officials initially suggested firing 11 to 14 of the workers, despite knowing that many had not contributed to the escape, the filings state, and the warden was told to expect discipline because his "name was on the sign."

A state review of the prison later "reported trivial findings such as unsigned log books and trash in the yard," the court filings added.

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New Gate Access System (copy)

Officials said Jimmy Causey cut through a fence at Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County and escaped in July. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In late July, both McFadden and Blackwell were reprimanded for negligence. McFadden opted to be reassigned to a warden post at the smaller Palmer Pre-Release Center in Florence. Blackwell's lawsuit said he would have been fired if he did not retire.

McFadden was blacklisted and eventually took extended leave, though he remains on the employee rolls, Cromer said, adding, "His career is gone."

Word of his reassignment was made public a month after Causey went on the lam. Prison officials refused to say if it was related to the escape.

The former wardens allege officials had conspired to shift the focus to them rather than systemic issues. They contend Causey shouldn't have been in the general inmate population because he had escaped 12 years earlier.

In 2005, he and another inmate at a Columbia prison stowed away in trash cans that were carried out. Causey was found after a three-day manhunt and sent back to prison.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.