The only two correctional officers standing watch at a Ridgeville prison dormitory that houses 229 of the state's most egregious offenders were injured Wednesday night after inmates lashed out and set off a five-hour riot.
Current and former S.C. Department of Corrections officials said violence is commonplace at Lieber Correctional Institution's Ashley dorm, which contains criminals facing lengthy sentences. The dorm had been on lockdown Wednesday night after "several incidents of violence" in recent weeks, department spokesman Clark Newsom said.
Newsom said six serious assaults, including two homicides, occurred in the prison over the past five years. But the revolt that ended early Thursday when special forces barged in amid a haze of tear gas was of greater proportions than any incident since the prison opened in 1986, officials said.
"It's a maximum-security prison, so it's not unusual to have this violence from time to time," Newsom said. "We have the worst of the worst. There's some pretty bad behavior."
Throughout the entire facility that houses about 1,500 inmates, 27 guards were on duty at the time the riot started about 10:30 p.m. But at its conclusion, 200 officers from a dozen tri-county police agencies had surrounded the campus, ensuring that "at no point was the public in danger," Newsom said.
"Unfortunately, (the staffing level) is average," Newsom said. "It is what it is."
Newsom didn't know what precipitated the disturbance but said officials were investigating several reports, including one that inmates were disgruntled about being fed bologna.
To blame, he said, was an unknown number of inmates who had been handing out bedding for the night. They first beat the two correctional officers with a pipe, then stole their keys and radios, he said.
They dispersed throughout the A and B wings of the Ashley dorm, smashing windows, trashing common areas and offices, and setting off water sprinklers while seeking places to hide. Some rooms filled with 3 feet of water before workers could shut off the flow.
After electricity to the dorm was severed, a force specially trained to handle prison uprisings shot tear gas into the building and later recaptured the inmates.
The suspects' names and potential criminal charges or punishments had not been determined. All had been returned to their cells, which were undamaged, Newsom said.
The injuries to the two overpowered correctional officers were minor, Newsom said. After the takedown, another officer was transported by ambulance to Trident Medical Center with a wound that "didn't appear to be life-threatening," said Doug Warren, director of Dorchester County Emergency Medical Services. On a night of near-freezing weather, two other officers suffered hypothermia-like conditions as they cleared the water that flooded the dorm.
Stan Burtt, a former warden at Lieber who retired in 2007 and now works in a faith-based prison ministry, said Lieber has had problems recruiting and retaining officers, an issue that's "endemic" at the most violent facilities.
He said that since budget cuts in the late 1990s, it wasn't uncommon for only two officers to staff the Ashley dorm. "It's a low number" for a maximum-security facility, Burtt said. Staffing levels have fallen by a half in the past decade and he advocated that more manpower be dedicated to violent offenders over lower-risk inmates.
"People look at all inmates as the same," Burtt said. "But an ax murderer who's insane is different from a guy who writes bad checks at Walmart once in a while."
Lieber, located in a rural corner of Ridgeville between highways 78 and 27, has been the scene of two slayings in recent years.
In September 2010, 72-year-old Saverio Piazzola was strangled in his cell while serving a 10-year sentence for criminal sexual conduct with a minor.
In August 2006, 19-year-old James Belli was killed when another prisoner repeatedly plunged a homemade shank into his neck. Now, after reports of corruption, a federal grand jury is said to be investigating the goings-on at Lieber at the time of Belli's death.
Ron Burris spent more than four years in Lieber, serving time for an infamous 1999 car chase that ended when he was shot 13 times by police in West Ashley. Burris turned his life around and has returned to Lieber to counsel inmates.
Burris said he wasn't surprised by the violence in the Ashley dorm, given the conditions inmates live in. They spend all but an hour or two of their days locked in their cells, he said. Cutbacks also have reduced recreational and vocational opportunities.
"It creates such a hostile environment," Burris said. "When you have that, things like this are going to happen."