An inmate and a guard inside a South Carolina correctional facility spoke with The Root detailing conditions inside the facility and a massive gang fight that left seven prisoners dead and 17 inmates injured on Sunday.
According to a source who spoke to the Associated Press, the fight at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., left bodies “stacked on top of each other.” Jeffrey Taillon, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, told The Root that no correctional officers were hurt in the incident, which lasted from 7:15 p.m. Sunday into the early hours of Monday morning.
Through a series of phone calls, text messages and a video chat, a prisoner housed in one of the units involved in the melee contacted The Root on the condition of anonymity, telling a story of an incredible prisonwide economy based on drugs, contraband and a bitter gang rivalry. The fight reportedly involved weapons including knives, manufactured prison shanks and even Tasers that were smuggled inside the penitentiary.
Lee Correctional Institution is a level 3 facility, the maximum level in South Carolina. The SCDC defines level 3 prisons as “high-security institutions designed primarily to house violent offenders with longer sentences, and inmates who exhibit behavioral problems.”
The facility consists of several housing units, administration buildings, a cafeteria and various other buildings. Our insider used his cellphone to show us the dormitory-style units that house the inmates. Each dorm also has a common area that prisoners call “the rock,” where they can watch TV, play cards and interact with one another. At the center of each unit is a protective command center for corrections officers called “the bubble.”
According to the inmate, a rumor had been circulating around the prison for a few days that a “package” was coming, referring to the contraband that manages to make its way inside the building. The insider described how drugs, weapons, tobacco and cellphones get into the prison.
“It’s coming over the fence,” he explained. “An inmate [called a runner] gets as close to the fence as possible, and someone throws the pack over the fence. ... But most of the time, the person on the outside isn’t connected to the runner.”
The flow of contraband is controlled by prison gangs, in this case Crips and Bloods. Although the two gangs are rivals, our source says that “the pack” is usually financed by both organizations. “That’s because, if you’re a Crip and you have the whole package to yourself, you don’t want the Bloods to be on the outside or you can lose the whole pack.”
The contraband affects everyone in the prison, even if they are not gang-affiliated. Not only do the gangs control drugs, but K2, a form of synthetic marijuana, is one of the most valuable contraband items. The insider says that it can fetch up to $30,000 profit per pound, and $250 for the equivalent of a cap of toothpaste filled with K2.
But the real value is in cellphones.
Although the possession of cellphones is illegal inside South Carolina prisons, the state has the highest rate of smuggled cellphones in the country, according to NBC. While South Carolina prison officials say they confiscate a cellphone from 1 in 3 prisoners, the inmate we spoke with says that the number of prisoners who own cellphones is about 75 percent.
The Root spoke with one current and one former correctional officer at Lee Correctional Facility. Both of them said that mobile devices have become commonplace inside the penitentiary.
“We can’t worry about every single phone,” said the current guard at Lee, who was not on duty during the melee. “Everybody has them. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Through a series of texts, the officer explained that cellphones are considered contraband but are often overlooked in the prison system.
“If we searched a room and find one [a cellular phone], we confiscated it. But that’s about it. ... It’s so bad that they openly walk around with their cells.”
The former corrections employee who worked inside the same facility explained that, while forbidden, cellphones have become so ubiquitous inside prisons that officers ignore them.
“You have to understand, we are in there every day,” said the former CO. “If you are an asshole to them, they’ll be an asshole to you. ... Convicts pay thousands for phones, and if you went around snatching phones, you won’t be there for long.”
Inside the prison, the price of a smartphone averages $1,500. Flip phones sell for $800 and chargers are sold separately for $50. The inmate told us that only two cellphone companies work inside the prison, making the right kind of phone very valuable.
According to the prisoner we spoke with, all of this is facilitated by contacts on the outside and guards running the facility. “If you’re making $20 an hour, who wouldn’t take an extra 2 grand to look the other way?” he asked. Even prisoners who are not affiliated are involved in the “pack economy” because many buy cigarettes, drugs and cellphones at wholesale from gang members who control “the pack,” and use it as a side hustle.
“We know about it. We try to stop it. But at the end of the day, the main concern is keeping order and getting home alive,” said the former guard. “You gotta understand ... these convicts be some of the most dangerous motherfuckers in the world. You can’t be in the pool with sharks trying to snatch food out of their mouths. Sometimes you just gotta let them eat ... or get ate.”
Our inmate source said that he began hearing reports that one of the gangs was going to take the entire pack when it arrived last week:
When they scored ... the Crip dude who got all the money, they wanted to rob him because the Blood niggas, the high-ranking ones, their part of the pack didn’t get in. So they [Bloods] started saying, “We’re gonna take the pack.”
When you heard that, you’re just waiting for the day for it to go down. Everybody knew that if nothing happened, it would be a miracle.
The rumor was so prevalent that in the days leading up to Sunday, many inmates wouldn’t leave their dorms to go to the common area because they knew there was a big fight coming in the near future. Others were preparing, even if they weren’t involved.
“Cats were scoring Tasers. They’re getting pepper spray. They’re getting ... man, a ... kitchen knife is worth $300 or $400,” the inmate explained. “There’s a difference between getting stabbed with a piece of iron that I made into a shank and getting stabbed with a fucking kitchen knife.”
Both the current guard and the inmate confirmed that everyone knew that a reckoning was coming, leaving everyone on edge.
“Folks would go to the Rock to see who was there and say, ‘Imma just stay in my room,’” said the inmate.
The rock had been unusually quiet for a few days last week. But on Sunday, it was crowded because of the NBA playoff games.
“Everyone was around the TV, but if you looked, you could see packs of niggas,” the inmate said. “And each pack was gang members. You knew this was going to be the day.”
It started in the yard.
“Different gang members live in different dorms,” said the inmate. “They don’t let them stay together, so the only time they can get at each other is on the yard.”
According to our inmate source, the fighting began as the inmates were headed to their dorms from the cafeteria:
I heard the “first respondents” call over the radio, which usually means there was a fight. Then I heard the call for an “institutional lockdown.” When you hear that, you know something deadly has happened. ... That means every person has to report to their room, even if they are working in the cafeteria, the canteen, cleaning.
The officers immediately sent the inmates to their individual rooms and began to make sure the doors were locked. “Them boys over there banging!” someone yelled.
That’s when the chaos happened.
Several of the locks on the dorm-style doors in the facility were broken, which meant that many of the officers couldn’t leave the individual buildings to de-escalate the fight for fear that inmates would leave their cells and began fighting on the rock.
“There’s gangs in every dorm,” explained the current Lee corrections officer, who came on duty later. “When [the COs who were there] locked down and popped locks [checked to see if the doors were locked], some ... convicts had broke the locks to their rooms. When that happened, COs had to sit in the bubble and make sure it didn’t turn into a all-out prison riot.”
Two hours after the institutional lockdown, they were still fighting. By the time they had everyone separated, our inmate source says, it was “1 or 2 in the morning.”
Because the fight didn’t take place inside the dorm, few prisoners witnessed the deadly clash. Even the ones present knew to get out of the way.
“When shit like this goes down, you just gotta get as far away from it and lay on the ground,” our inmate connection told us. “Niggas will stab you because they don’t know which side you are down with. COs will fuck you up because they don’t know if you’re fighting or not.”
The seven inmates who died in the fighting were Raymond Scott, 28; Michael Milledge, 44; Damonte Rivera, 24; Eddie Gaskins, 32; Joshua Jenkins, 33; Corey Scott, 38; and Cornelius McClary, 33, according to NBC News. Seventeen more inmates were injured, and none of the 44 guards on duty were injured.
Our inmate insider speculates that this will cause the prison contraband economy to explode. The cellphone problem has led the SCDC to employ the state’s National Guard to patrol the perimeter of the prison.
The state has also tried to use cellphone-blocking signals, but the Federal Communications Commission outlaws the use of cell-blocking technology (pdf).
Our inmate source said: “Right now, everyone here is basically in solitary. I’m guessing it might be this way for at least two weeks.”