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Guards waited hours to stop a prison riot that left 7 inmates dead



When the trouble started, Mr. Stirling later said in a telephone interview, there were only two guards armed with pepper spray in each of the three units. Each unit houses about 250 inmates.

It takes time to mount an armed SWAT team in a rural area on a Sunday night, he said.

When the authorities regained control, the jail failure was one of the worst in the last quarter century. And it was an embarrassment for South Carolina, where officials have tried to address the problems in jail with a new conviction policy to reduce the prison population and pay the guards higher wages to reduce sales.

Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said on Monday that the upheaval had been "unfortunate," but the flare-up of criminals was inevitable.

"We know that prisons are places where people who behave externally go to rehabilitation to get them out of the population," he said. "It's no surprise when violent events take place in prison."

Mark Keel, chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, said the exact cause of the uproar and the details of each murder were being investigated. Larry Logan, the coroner for Lee County, SC, where the jail is located, said autopsies had not been completed yet, but it appeared that all the dead had stabbed and lacerated wounds from improvised weapons.

Lee Correctional Institution, which opened in 1993, houses approximately 1,500 male inmates and has a reputation for anger. In 2013, Michael McCall, then the Lee guard, said it was the most dangerous prison in South Carolina. The state uses both public and private prisons; Lee Correctional is public.

In 2015, two officers were stabbed there. One inmate was killed during a fight in July 2017, another was stabbed in November and a third was killed in February

The prison managers also had difficulty removing the contraband. In 2014, officials discovered a crashed drone in the bushes near the prison and said they believed that drones were used to smuggle drugs and banned cell phones into the grounds.

Phones remain a problem with Lee, Stirling said on Monday, because they allow criminals "to continue their criminal activities behind bars, which is dangerous not only in our institutions, but is also dangerous outside of our institutions."

Mr. Stirling said he had tried to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to block cell phone signals in jail. Federal officials resisted such requests because they feared that blocking the signals would make it impossible for people in need to call the emergency call in an emergency.

At the time of the uprising, Stirling said, there were 44 prison staff at the facility. Until recently, the number would have been less than 20, he said, but the jail recently began with night shift workers starting their work earlier and the day shift later, so they were both on-site while the prisoners were counted and detained overnight ,

Mr. Stirling, who served as chief of staff for Nikki Haley when she was governor, said his department was staffed with only 500 fewer front-line officers than she needed. But he said the recent budget increases for the department, backed by Ms. Haley and others, allowed him to increase the wages of the guards and begin to fill that gap.

New sentencing and corrective actions in 2010 have put some of the burden on the state prison system. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that the number of prisoners fell by 14 percent between 2009 and 2016, saving the state $ 491 million.

Deputy J. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat, said on Monday that the uprising showed that more work had to be done. He and other lawmakers sponsored a bill that would reduce mandatory minimum penalties for drug crime and would apply retroactively.

Mr. Rutherford said he did not support the blocking of mobile phone signals in jail and preferred a "managed" system that would allow police officers to track inmates' phone use.

And he said how long it would take to gather enough guards rebellion was understandable, considering how far away the place was. "I'm a lawyer, and I often go to Lee Correctional," he said. "It's in the middle of Bishopville, and there's nothing there."

The Penal Authority released the names of seven dead inmates, all of whom needed time for violent crime. Damonte Marquez Rivera had the longest prison term, plus 90 years, for murder; Eddie Casey Jay Gaskins had the shortest, 10 years, first-degree domestic violence.

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