Initial deal struck to end South Carolina prison riot suits

·2 min read

South Carolina prison officials said Monday they have reached the initial approval phase of a $6 million settlement to resolve dozens of lawsuits the Department of Corrections is facing following a deadly prison riot that killed seven inmates.

“We will appear in front of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority tomorrow asking for permission to move forward with a settlement in the Lee riot cases,” Department of Corrections spokesperson Chrysti Shain told The Associated Press.

The settlement was listed as the final item on the authority's Tuesday agenda, which noted the prisons agency faces a total of 81 lawsuits filed by inmates, or on inmates' behalf, in state and federal courts.

The 2018 riot raged for more than seven hours at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Columbia. Most of the slain were stabbed or slashed; others appeared to have been beaten. One inmate described bodies “literally stacked on top of each other, like some macabre woodpile.”

Officials have said the violence — the worst U.S. prison riot in 25 years — began as a battle over contraband and territory. Corrections officials have blamed it in part on illegal cellphones, which Department Director Bryan Stirling has said represent the greatest security threat inside prisons because they give inmates an unmonitored way to communicate with the outside world and each other, and in some cases to wage criminal acts from behind bars.

For several months leading up to the insurrection, the AP communicated with a Lee prisoner who used a contraband cellphone to offer insight into life behind bars. Describing frequent gang fights with homemade weapons, he said prisoners roamed freely, had easy access to cellphones and drugs, and were often left to police themselves.

Just after the riots, both that inmate and an attorney who frequently works in the state's prisons told the AP the illegal cellphones were frequently furnished by corrections officers themselves.

A person familiar with the agency's operations backed up those notions, telling the AP delivery trucks — which were supposed to be inspected while entering prison grounds — often ferry cellphones and other contraband.

Since the riot, numerous security improvements have been implemented, including a $1 million cell door locking system to prevent future intrusions at Lee.

New measures also include perimeter netting, scanning devices and drone monitoring to shut cellphones down. Officials still are not able to fully use the cell signal-jamming technology Stirling wants, however.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

Meg Kinnard, The Associated Press

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