Prison Riot (copy)

A police vehicle sits outside the Lee Correctional Institution on Monday in Bishopville. Multiple inmates were killed and others seriously injured amid fighting between prisoners inside the maximum security prison in South Carolina. Sean Rayford/AP

The gangs run Lee.

David recognized that the minute he was locked up in South Carolina’s most dangerous maximum security prison.

If he hadn’t, he would be dead now.

“Lee is the worst. If you don’t rep your crew, you’re an outcast,” David says, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisal. “I saw them attack people in the yard — any little thing could trip it. When I saw something take place, I went the other way. If you can’t stand your ground, they single you out as being weak.”

And Lee Correctional Institution is no place for the weak.

On Sunday night, one of the deadliest American prison riots in a quarter-century broke out at the 1,500-inmate facility in Bishopville. Seven men were killed, another 17 seriously injured, and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do about it.

There were fewer than 50 guards on duty at the time — do the math.

But truth is, the staff is rarely in control. The gangs are in charge. It’s organized, it’s a business, and it’s lethally brutal.

The business is drugs, tobacco, cellphones. David, who spent nearly a year at Lee on an aggravated assault plea deal, says it is a bloodlessly efficient system. Every night, someone on the outside tosses the stuff over the fence, always bundled up in Reynolds Wrap.

They call these deliveries “bombs.”

“They know right where they are,” David says. “They’ve got people working in the kitchen, in maintenance — going to prayer meetings just to pass information. They set up scams, get on the internet and do pen pal stuff with women. It’s all raking in money.”

David is a graduate of a cognitive behavioral program that helps violent felons rejoin society. He’s got a full-time job, has put his life on track and Lee in his rearview mirror.

That makes him one of the lucky few who didn’t get drafted into one of the prison’s rival factions; when someone asked him his affiliation, he always said Christian.

Had he spent any longer there, he likely would have been forced to conform. Or he would have been dealt with.

The yard at Lee is competitive, and the gangs demand loyalty. David says it’s like the Bloods and the Crips, but they’ve got their own names. There’s a code in the organizations, rules to live by, and that often includes taking out the competition.

Even if that requires beatings, stabbings or the occasional rape.

“They call it 'shoot the round.' They go into the multi-purpose room, and you have all these guys standing around,” he says. “What they were really doing is blocking the windows. Then two guys with a beef can fight. It’s very organized. Day in and day out, it’s like that.”

One day, a guy was walking through the outside yard. David says he doesn’t know if he flashed a gang sign, owed someone money or they just didn’t like his attitude. The lookouts watched him, passed the word and made plans.

And when he went into the shower one morning, a few inmates filed in behind him and stabbed him over and over.

Sometimes, David says, it’s like entertainment. There’s nothing else to do, so somebody catches a beating.

He had to fight his way out of trouble a couple of times but was never written up for it.

He was having health troubles during his stay and worried because some of the other inmates weren’t getting their medicine, insulin and such. So he came up with a way out — David screamed at a guard just so they’d put him in solitary.

Before long, though, he ended up in the West Yard — where the worst of the inmates roam during the day. He still has friends there, and worries about them.

“There are definitely not enough guards there,” David says of Lee. “When I was there they had one guard for 112 inmates, and people were being rolled all the time.”

The state Department of Corrections has hundreds of vacancies, so that’s no surprise. South Carolina pays its guards poorly, puts them in impossible situations and creates the system like the one behind the razor wire at Lee.

Few men find $35,000 a year worth running into a cell full of men with homemade shivs. Even school resource officers in North Charleston make $100 more per week than the guards at Lee Correctional.

David knows this: Whatever happened Sunday, it wasn’t a random outbreak of violence. It might have started because of something as incidental as an insult, or it could have been a business dispute.

But there is little to no chance the riot wasn’t a premeditated, and calculated, attack.

“This didn’t just start, it’s been playing out,” he says. “These guys have been planning this. It doesn’t just happen.”

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.