Director: 7 killed during fights 'about territory, about contraband' at Lee Correctional

S.C. Governor Henry McMaster, Director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections Brian Stirling, and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Director Mark Keel during a news conference on Monday afternoon. (WPDE)

The fights in Lee County Correctional Institution that resulted in the deaths of seven inmates and injuries to 17 others are believed to have been gang-related and over territory and contraband, according to the Director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) Brian Stirling.

A full investigation is underway but, based on preliminary reports, Stirling said, "This was all about territory, this was about contraband, this was about cell phones."

According to Stirling, the timeline for Sunday's incident is as follows:

  • 7:15 p.m. - The first fight started in a dorm, prompting a call out to the response team members across the state to help.
  • 8:30 p.m. - Fights broke out in two other dorms.
  • 9:20 p.m. - South Carolina Law Enforcement Division responded to the scene.
  • 11:30 p.m. - Law enforcement entered the first dorm to "take it back"
  • 12:30 p.m. - The second dorm was entered to be "taken back"
  • 2 a.m. - The third dorm was entered and roll call counts were performed a short time later.

Stirling said there are around 250 to 260 inmates inside each dorm at any one time.

When the fights began Sunday night, the inmates were in the process of being counted and locked in their cells for the night, he said.

There were around 40 correctional officers at the prison at the time, since there were two overlapping shifts, Stirling said.

A dozen officers were in the dorms where the fights broke out, four in each dorm, he said.

The officers are believed to have followed protocol, Stirling said, and "backed out" of the dorms and called for backup when they could not safely stop the fights themselves.

"They're outnumbered, so they're trained to back out of that dorm and call for support," he said.

Stirling said those additional resources were gathered and they "went in as soon as we thought it was safe for our staff."

When asked about the hours that the inmates were left unsupervised and without medical treatment, Stirling said the response time was not usual because there were three separate incidents that had to be responded to and dealt with.

"We did everything we could in our power to get there as quickly as possible," he said.

Stirling was also asked about photos and videos circulating on social media that show inmates lying in pools of blood and inmates piled against a fence, some appearing to be injured and some appearing to be dead. He said he could not confirm the authenticity of those photos or videos, but said there were inmates put against a fence. He said that was not done by jail staff, but they think it was done by inmates.

Stirling said the investigation is ongoing to figure out how the fights started and what, if any, weapons were involved. He said surveillance footage will be reviewed as part of the investigation, which is being handled by South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

What started the fights is not clear, but Stirling said they believe gangs were involved and that cell phones were too, pointing to the fact that the first fight happened in one dorm, no one left that dorm and then a short time later, the other fights began.

"This is gangs fighting over territory," he said.

Related - Netting going up at South Carolina prisons to prevent contraband being smuggled in

Both Stirling and Governor Henry McMaster pointed to the illegal use of cell phones inside prisons as a reason for this incident and others like it.

"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated. That's why we've been leading the effort in South Carolina to ask the FCC to allow us to block this signal," Stirling said.

Related - S.C. Corrections Dept. wants to crack down on cell phones in cell blocks

He said until there is a solution "the folks that are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways from behind bars, which is not only dangerous inside our institutions, but it's also dangerous outside our institutions. That's why we need the FCC to allow us to block the signal or the cell phone company to come to us with a technology that would allow us to control these signals."

McMaster echoed that sentiment, saying "people in this prison, many of them have violent records. We cannot expect them to give up their violent ways when they go to prison. They take those violent ways with them."

He said the jamming of the cell phone signals "will do a lot" to prevent criminal activity from continuing inside prisons.

As it stands now, he said the FCC regulations preventing the jamming of cell signals are "an absolute outrage," but that's why "we are doing our best to see that that FCC rule is changed and changed as quickly as possible."

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