Five years ago a single inmate was murdered in South Carolina’s state prisons. That number has exploded to 11 so far this year — one death a month.
Even as the state has “led the nation in criminal justice reform” as Charleston Sen. Chip Campsen put it on this page two weeks ago, the prisons are becoming more dangerous places. Violence has spiked in the last two years: 131 inmates were taken to the hospital last year after being seriously injured — shivs being the weapon of choice — by other prisoners, up from 50 in 2014, according to the Department of Corrections. And that doesn’t include those patched up in prison infirmaries after being beaten or stabbed. We’re on a similar pace this year.
Serious assaults on correctional officers are also rising. In Charleston County, three people incarcerated for petty crimes like shoplifting and trespassing died in the county jail in four months this year. Inmate lawsuits have mushroomed.
“We are in the middle of a crisis,” says Georgetown lawyer J. Edward Bell, who has filed a series of inmate lawsuits and has more on the way. “These recent stabbings and killings are just the tip of the iceberg.”
The culture of violence is being driven by a desperate shortage of correctional officers — one in four jobs are vacant – and the power of the gangs, which armed with contraband cellphones can continue to fight over turf and money on both the inside and outside. The prison population has also grown more violent as non-violent inmates are released and the use of solitary confinement is reduced.
South Carolina prison violence became national news in April when four inmates at Kirkland Correctional in Columbia were strangled and beaten to death. Denver Simmons, convicted of the cold-blooded killing of a mother and her teenaged son, later said he and another prisoner killed the four to get the death penalty rather than spend a lifetime in prison.
Lieber Correctional, north of Charleston in Ridgeville, and Lee Correctional in Bishopville, are the state’s most dangerous prisons. Together, the two maximum security facilities have had seven inmate killings and 116 serious inmate injuries in the last five years. Two prisoners died within a week of each other at Lee and Lieber last month.
Few prisons have been immune: Medium-security Ridgeland has had the most serious injuries — 34 — of any state prison in the last two years plus one death this year. Evans Correctional, a medium security prison in Bennettsville, has had 11 serious injuries this year, up from three a year ago, and one death.
In the lawsuits, attorneys for the inmates paint a picture of a prison system where correctional officers are in short supply, weapons are plentiful, gangs run free and perpetrators go unpunished. “In many instances it appears the Defendants were complicit in the violent act and/or knew said acts were going to occur and did nothing to prevent the acts,” according to a lawsuit targeting Evans.
“Gangs run the prisons,” said Willie McCray, who qualifies as an expert, having spent four years in prison on drug charges.
McCray, 57, was playing checkers in his dorm at Evans when he was leveled from behind by an inmate wielding a so-called lock-in-a-sock, which is every bit as brutal as it sounds. He suffered a ruptured eyesocket, a fractured cheek bone and a concussion. He still wears special glasses and suffers from headaches and memory loss.
“There just aren’t enough guards,” said McCray, who got out of Evans last year. There was a single officer overseeing 60 inmates that day, and she was apparently nowhere in sight. No one was charged in the attack.
Stemming the epidemic of violence will require getting more corrections officers into the prisons and cellphones out, said Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. He declined to comment on the lawsuits.
“The biggest problem is the cellphones,” said Stirling, who was Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief of staff before she named him to head the prisons four years ago. “People do not realize how dangerous these cellphones are. Charles Manson had two of them in prison.”
South Carolina has made progress reducing its prison population and saving taxpayers money. In September, Pew Charitable Trusts reported the inmate count declined 14 percent from 2010 to 2015, dropping the state’s incarceration rate to 19th in the nation from 11th. That was a result of a 2010 reform bill that focused on expanding alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders and reducing recidivism. Legislators are now looking for a second round of reform.
That new effort must address the escalating violence. That will certainly involve staffing the prisons adequately, dealing with the gangs and cellphones and improving overall conditions. Running prisons is a thankless job that involves managing some of society’s most violent misfits, many of them mentally ill.
But when the state takes someone’s freedom, it also assumes the responsibility for their safety. If the Legislature and the prisons can’t fix it, the courts must.
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at email@example.com.