Police end perimeter protection around Lieber prison

Lieber Correctional Institution, in Dorchester County near Ridgeville.

Early this morning, about 200 law enforcement officers from jurisdictions across the Lowcountry broke down the perimeter they had established around Lieber Correctional Institution after special forces entered the prison and ended an inmate uprising there late Wednesday night.

Maj. John Garrison of the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office said deputies, police officers and corrections officers began leaving around 7:45 a.m.

An inmate dormitory at the state facility on Wilborn Avenue in Ridgeville was locked down when an unknown number of inmates rioted after overpowering guards and stealing their keys, authorities said.

The overpowered officers were released, said Clark Newsom, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Three corrections officers were injured and were taken by ambulance to Trident Medical Center.

Doug Warren, director of Dorchester County Emergency Medical Services, said two corrections officers were taken to the hospital when the riot started, between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. One more was transported between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m.

"At the time of transport, the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening," Warren said. "But it was a long night."

Newsom described their injuries as minor.

The riot began about 9 p.m. in the Ashley A and B dorm, a high-security section that was housing 229 inmates, Newsom said. Two officers were staffing the dorm at the time.

Newsom said the inmates hit an officer with a pipe, stole keys and radios, and dispersed throughout the dorm in an attempt to hide. He said they “trashed a few offices,” broke windows and set off some sprinklers before water to the facility was shut off. Newsom did not know whether any fires were ignited.

Special operations teams from the prison and some of the 12 local police agencies that assisted in the effort cut electricity to the dorm, shot tear gas into the building and barged in about 3:40 a.m.

Newsom said at 10 a.m. that all but one of the inmates had been secured and returned to their cells. That inmate’s status wasn’t known, but he said none of them were thought to have been hurt in the riot and the subsequent operation to end it.

The dorm had been on lockdown before the uprising because of several recent incidents, though Newsom didn’t know the details. He didn’t know the motive for the riot.

“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.

“But I have to emphasize that at no point was the public in danger.”

Stan Burtt, former warden of the facility who now works in a prison ministry, said it wasn’t uncommon for only two officers to staff the dorm.

Burtt said that during his tenure, there were no riots to the scale of last night’s incident but that violence was common in the Ashley dorm, which housed the 1,500-inmate facility’s most violent offenders. He said the average sentence for people not on death row or with a life term was about 20 years.

Burtt said that staffing levels have not recovered after job cuts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When the facility opened, about 400 officers handled 700 inmates.

On Wednesday night, there were 27 officers staffing the entire prison, Newsom said.

“Lieber has an incredibly hard time recruiting and retaining officers,” Burtt said. “That’s endemic at that security level. Two officers for the entire dorm is usually the way it is at night.”

The prison, located in a rural corner of Ridgeville, has been the scene of violence in the past. Those incidents include:

In October 2010, a Ladson man serving a 30-year prison sentence for a 2003 murder was stabbed during a fight at the prison. He survived.

A month earlier, 72-year-old Saverio Piazzola, was strangled in his cell while serving a 10-year sentence for criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

In December 2009, two Death Row inmates repeatedly stabbed a corrections officer with a makeshift weapon during a confrontation near an outdoor recreation area. He survived.

In June 2008, a Lieber inmate was stabbed multiple times in the head and body by a group of fellow prisoners. He survived.

In August 2006, 19-year-old inmate named James Belli was killed when another prisoner repeatedly plunged a homemade shank into his neck. Court documents surrounding his case painted a picture of a violent and corrupt prison where gang members extorted fellow inmates and sold drugs, allegedly with help from two guards.

Corrections officials denied those allegations, though the state chose to settle a lawsuit brought by Belli’s mother for $450,000 last year rather that go to trial. Now, a federal grand jury is said to be investigating the goings-on at Lieber at the time of Belli’s death.

“The institution is secure,” Newsom said. “The public is safe.”

No information about the operation to secure the facility was available.