As blood spilled and bodies piled up, prison officials anxiously waited for officers to arrive with enough manpower and weaponry to take Lee Correctional Institution back from rioting inmates.
One hour passed. Then two. Three. Four.
While they waited, people died.
Sunday's riot at the maximum-security prison in Bishopville exposed gaps in the corrections system's ability to respond to and quell mass uprisings in rural facilities where staffing is thin and help is often an hour or more away. It will likely be a key topic of inquiry when an independent panel of prison experts starts examining what went wrong at Lee.
Corrections officials said they couldn't safely venture into the melee until extra teams of officers showed up with specialized training and equipment. Most of all, they needed people. With just 44 officers on duty Sunday night at Lee, there was no way they could retake the three affected housing units and keep watch over the rest of the prison, which houses some 1,500 inmates, they said.
But those special team members are scattered around the state, with some as far away as Hilton Head Island — more than a two-hour drive. Eventually, a force of more than 100 showed up and they were able to storm the unit where the fighting started and restore order. But that was four hours into the riot. It would take another three to fully bring the disturbance under control.
By that time, seven inmates were dead and another 22 were seriously injured — many slashed or stabbed with homemade knives or severely beaten. It marked the deadliest episode of prison violence in South Carolina's modern history and likely the worst the nation as a whole has seen in a quarter century.
Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said he is deeply troubled by the loss of life. But he stands by officers' decision to follow policy and retreat from the units when the fighting erupted. They were badly outmanned, he said, and that remained the case until outside help arrived from around the state.
"They got there just as soon as they could ... but some of our teams come from very far away," he said. "We're not sending in teams and putting officers at risk until we have enough people to safely go in and restore order."
'A hot mess'
Still, the response has drawn heavy criticism from some lawmakers, civil rights activists and family members of the fallen.
“They allowed people to fight. They allowed people to kill each other. They allowed the bodies to pile up,” said James Johnson, South Carolina president for the civil rights advocacy group National Action Network. “They want to blame it on the inmates, but those deaths are on their hands.”
State Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat and attorney from Bamberg, said the problem isn't limited to Lee.
Bamberg represents the family of Allen Capers, who was stabbed in January at Turbeville Correctional Institution in Clarendon County. Capers lay bleeding as fighting went on for an hour and no one came to his aid, Bamberg said. Video showed him trying to get up during that span and falling back to the floor as others walked by, the lawmaker said. He died.
“The delay in them regaining control is something that happens too much,” Bamberg said. “It’s a hot mess. Rapid Response isn’t rapid response. You need the manpower in a matter of minutes, not hours.”
The S.C. Department of Corrections Rapid Response Team was one of three specialized squads — not including State Law Enforcement Division agents — that responded to Lee in the hours after fighting broke out in a housing unit around 7:15 p.m. Wary of tipping off inmates to their capabilities, officials won't discuss how many officers serve on the teams, exactly where they are based or what types of weapons they have at their disposal. But the teams are regional, and the officers involved all have other duties. They are called in when needed, from home or work, and must make their way to incidents without the aid of sirens or blue lights, authorities said.
They can take so long to get there, one South Carolina law enforcement official said, that a half-dozen local police agencies, three federal ones and a helicopter could set up outside a prison and officers will still “have time for a nice latte from Starbucks” by the time the Rapid Response Team shows up.
Some county jails have seen a need to establish dedicated tactical units on site. A decade ago, for example, Charleston County jail officials formed the Special Operations Group made up of detention deputies with special training to respond to disturbances. Its members are outfitted with protective vests, Tasers, pepper spray and shotguns that fire rubber rounds.
“We wanted to have that presence on site,” Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said. “When something starts happening, you have a window of opportunity to intervene and prevent it from going further.”
Texas attorney and longtime corrections consultant Steve Martin said it doesn’t take tactical officers hours to suit up and lob tear gas canisters into the dorms, sending inmates scattering to their cells.
Having a tactical team on site with helmets, shields and weapons might have been a game-changer, said Barney Barnes, who led the Navy’s prison system and later Dorchester County’s jail.
“It’s not rocket science,” Barnes said. “That could have changed the outcome (at Lee). I’m not saying it would have, but it probably could have.”
Stirling said Lee does have a smaller team to respond to emergencies, but it didn't have time to intervene before the melee got out of control.
Having dedicated teams at the ready for large disturbances at prisons throughout the state would likely cost millions for a system that's already underfunded, said former Corrections Director Jon Ozmint, who served when Mark Sanford was governor.
Ozmint said South Carolina's tactical approach is in line with other states. The real problem is that the state chose to locate many of its prisons in remote patches, thinking they would be engines for economic development in underdeveloped areas that have long struggled with high unemployment. Lee, for instance, has the ninth-highest unemployment rate among the state's 46 counties — nearly a point and a half above the state average.
The strategy, however, didn't pay off because low-wage, high-stress prison jobs still proved difficult to fill. That left a host of undermanned facilities "out in the middle of nowhere," Ozmint said.
"Prisons as economic development tools is a failed experiment," he said, "and one of the byproducts is that we have prisons that are far away from any population centers, and it takes a long time to get resources on site."
The closest major city to Lee prison is Columbia, nearly an hour away. While local law enforcement is available to assist, their role is mainly relegated to watching the fenceline. The Lee County Sheriff's Office is about a mile down the road from the prison, but the agency doesn't have its own SWAT team to lend even if it wanted, Chief Deputy Tim Clavon said.
Retired Corrections Capt. Robert Johnson worked at Lee, and he knows the potential dangers well. He was shot six times in 2010 after an inmate used an illegal cellphone to arrange an attempt on his life.
Johnson said the public shouldn’t fault correctional officers for waiting until tactical teams arrived before venturing back inside the dorms. Armed only with pepper spray, it would have been suicide for an officer to wade into a mass brawl involving more than 100 inmates with deadly sharp shanks, he said. The tactical teams carry guns and the threat of deadly force, and that’s what is needed to end such a riot, Johnson said.
“It takes overwhelming force to stop something like this,” he said. “They have to know we are coming and, if need be, we will kill them. That’s the only thing these gangs respect. They respect force.”
Still, that's a message that is tough to accept for those who lost loved ones in the riot.
Cassandra Gaskins said her cousin Eddie didn't deserve to die. He may have been a convict serving time for domestic violence, but she said he was also a 32-year-old father from rural Berkeley County who loved hunting, fishing, spending time with family and making people laugh.
"Proper security measures could have prevented this tragedy or at least not let it get to this point," she said. "It's unfortunate, heartbreaking and tragic that seven families are grieving over their loved ones and many more suffering injuries."