COLUMBIA — South Carolina senators Wednesday announced a legislative probe into the state's prison system, which burst into the national spotlight last month when seven inmates were killed during a riot.
Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, will lead a special oversight subcommittee expected to hold a string of hearings over the summer and fall.
Setting the table for the effort, he and other lawmakers are expected to question state prisons Director Bryan Stirling on Thursday for the first time since the violent uprising at Lee Correctional Institution.
That hearing will come days after a pair of survivors alleged in lawsuits that unlocked doors contributed to the melee's spread.
In follow-up proceedings, panel members intend to speak with correctional officers, prisoners and their families.
Allen said he wants to ensure lawmakers get all the information they need to improve prison conditions and employee morale throughout the state, and to address other problems that contribute to uprisings.
It's important for legislators and the Department of Corrections to be on the same page, Allen said, so employees and some of the more than 14,000 state inmates feel comfortable speaking with the committee.
"I want a free flow of information," Allen said. "In the past, there has been some concern about retaliation. I want to eliminate that concern as much as possible."
The oversight panel, Allen said, hopes to schedule hearings statewide so correctional officers and inmates' families don't have to travel to Columbia.
The hearings will focus on the entire department, Allen said, and will likely lead any legislative reforms next year.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he also plans to use the Thursday hearing to question Stirling about the April 15 riot that also injured 22 inmates at Lee in Bishopville.
Officials have said disputes over territory and contraband, including the illegal cellphones that have plagued prisons in recent years, helped spark the riot. Prisons have also struggled to hire enough correctional officers and pay them a competitive wage.
Some of the prisoners involved have already raised issues they say contributed to the chaos. Two of the survivors sued the Corrections Department on Tuesday in state court.
Inmates Jadarius Roberts, 21, and Robert Jackson, 30, were in the same housing wing when the fighting broke out. Roberts is imprisoned for attempted murder and shooting into a home, and Jackson for robbery and assault.
Fifteen to 20 prisoners quickly jumped into the fray, they said in separate lawsuits.
Roberts abandoned the card game he was playing and tried to barricade himself in a cell. Others forced their way in and stabbed him 20 times.
Jackson said he stayed in his cell the whole time but other prisoners found him. The intruders demanded his TV, radio and food, then stabbed him and beat him with a pipe.
Both bled for hours until they got the medical care they needed. Jackson said he bandaged his own wounds with materials from his cell.
The men contend the rioting would not have spread if the housing unit’s interior doors had been locked. They alleged the prison violated policies by leaving them unlocked.
With only one officer patrolling the unit, the manpower wasn't enough to supervise some of the most violent offenders in the prison, the lawsuits states.
As a result, the prisoners said they suffer "pain, paranoia and nightmares."
Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Taillon declined to comment because the suits were pending.
The agency has acknowledged some locks at Lee were broken but it has not said whether that contributed to the riot. Stirling has said that locks are an issue throughout the system.
Roberts' lawyer is state Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Kingstree, who said state officials and the Legislature bear the responsibility for improving the prisons.
"The Department of Corrections is underfunded. They are undermanned," he said Wednesday. "And as a result, they've created a climate in which (inmates') safety is in jeopardy every day."