Prison riot

Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., where seven inmates were killed and 17 other seriously injured in fights between prisoners. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Sean Rayford

It’s easy for prisoners to be out of sight, out of mind, until an explosion of violence like the tragedy at Lee Correctional Institution that left seven inmates dead and 17 others hospitalized. The carnage highlights the critical need to fill vacant guard positions and to speed up much-needed reforms. The state also should seek outside help to figure out what makes South Carolina’s prisons so deadly.

Despite declining inmate populations, the state’s correctional institutions remain severely understaffed with about 1 in 4 jobs unfilled. They have become increasingly violent, with a dozen murders logged last year, and they’re plagued by a proliferation of drugs, gangs and contraband cellphones, as well as suicides, escapes and internal corruption.

Prisons director Bryan Stirling inherited decades of problems when he took over in 2013, and he’s made some improvements including pay raises for correctional officers and staffing increases. But those improvements have not come fast enough. For example, assaults in which prisoners were hospitalized have nearly doubled over the past two years compared to the previous two.

It’s time for Gov. Henry McMaster to ask the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections or a comparable organization for assistance.

In a column in The Post and Courier that presaged the latest bloodletting, Steve Bailey asked, “Does anyone care?” what happens behind bars, then answered, “We don’t care at our own peril,” because 85 percent of inmates now behind bars will be back among us in less than five years.

The outbreak of violence in which inmates were stabbed, slashed and beaten went on for nearly eight hours before guards were able to quell it. That suggests staffing at Lee, a maximum-security prison with about 1,500 inmates, was insufficient — even with a full complement of 44 officers — to put down the brawl without extra guards being bused in. Indeed, State Law Enforcement Division officers were brought in to help restore order.

At the same prison in March, an inmate held a guard hostage for nearly 90 minutes. The month before, an inmate killed a fellow prisoner there. Another inmate-on-inmate killing occurred in November, and another in July.

Cellphones behind bars are so widespread that one inmate was able to exchange messages with an Associated Press reporter. The inmate said it was unclear how the violence started, but that most prisoners were affiliated with gangs. He said the locks on many cell doors were broken before the fighting began, and inmates roamed the cell blocks freely. The correctional officers on duty retreated to a secure area, he said, and it was hours before anyone entered to render medical aid.

A chorus of state prison officials around the country, Mr. Stirling foremost among them, have pleaded with the Federal Communications Commission to relax its rules to allow cellphone jamming technology behind bars. That would certainly be a step in the right direction.

The spasm of violence at Lee was among the deadliest behind bars in recent years. But it isn’t the only S.C. prison with problems. Last year two inmates murdered four other prisoners at Kirkland Correctional Institution.

That’s unacceptable. While the state has a duty to protect its citizens from violent predators, it also has a duty to protect prisoners from each other. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

It’s time for Gov. McMaster to reach out for help. And the Legislature must back him up with the funding needed to make South Carolina prisons a place where inmates and guards don’t have to fear for their lives.