by David M. Reutter
Shortly after the deadliest prison riot in 25 years, officials launched an investigation into the events surrounding the April 25, 2018, incident at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution (LCI). After more than two and a half years and at least $190,000 spent on a special investigation, indictments were announced against 29 prisoners involved in the mayhem on December 3, 2020.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson (R) and Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Bryan Stirling said the men faced a total of 70 charges, including three for murder against prisoners Stephen J. Green, Richardo Labruce Joseph, and Daniel Lamar Peay. The other indictments include conspiracy and assault charges.
The riot started at the 1,785-bed prison in rural Wilsonville when two members of Gangster Nation attacked and stole contraband from a prisoner who was unaffiliated with any gang, killing him. News spread via contraband cellphones, angering members of the rival Bloods gang. They went on the attack, only to find themselves outnumbered in an outdoor breezeway by a coalition of Gangster Nation and Crips gang members, who had united to repel the attack.
As word of the violence continued to spread, the riot spilled over into two other prison units where the Bloods held numerical advantage over their two rival gangs. They launched a counterattack to avenge the one their fellow gang members had lost in the first unit.
During the eight-hour ordeal, which involved hundreds of prisoners, some 20 prisoners tried to flee the violence by scaling a razor-topped fence while attackers slashed at their backs with homemade knives. Seven prisoners died and dozens were injured during the riot. (See PLN, March 2020, p.46.)
In April 2019, a year after the incident, DOC and the office of local Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III hired Knox McMahon, a former circuit judge, and Kathryn Luck Campbell, a former prosecutor, to serve as special prosecutors of the LCI riot.
“This case demands a tremendous amount of resources and expertise, and this team has the years of experience to handle this prosecution,” Stirling said at the time.
Finney said in April 2020 that the investigations had already cost $190,000. He added that investigators faced a number of challenges, including staff and prisoners who feared speaking out due to the possibility of retaliation against them or their family.
Two months after the riot, the Association of State Correctional Administrators conducted its own audit. Its report concluded that the way prison officials responded afterward could hamper the investigation because “documentation of the entire event was poor.”
The CharlestonPost and Courier also conducted an investigation, during which its reporters “collected thousands of pages of records, interviewed experts and prison staff, and communicated with over 100 inmates who were either touched by the violence or witnessed it.”
Its December 2019 report said a key contributor to the riot was the transfer of a large number of rival gang members into LCI shortly before the incident. But a shortage of guards also let gang activity get out of control. In addition, there were faulty door locks that allowed prisoners to move about the units at will.
Gov. Henry McMaster (R) pledged to address the latter two problems with a $100 million request from state legislators. Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state’s economy for much of March and April 2020. State revenues plummeted. Legislators raided a budget surplus just to keep existing services going. They also froze spending at 2019 levels, denying the extra funds the Governor had lobbied for.
Meanwhile the pandemic only made DOC staff shortages worse. By March 26, 2020, the agency was short nearly 900 guards, about one-third of its total number. And while prison officials have had some success despite limited resources — violent incidents were down from 23 in the first four months of 2018 to just seven in the same period in 2020 — a prisoner attacked a guard in April 2020, sending him for a stay in the hospital.
In addition to transferring 50 “problematic” prisoners out of the state after the riot, Stirling said DOC has also taken measures to combat contraband, especially cellphones, which he considered the biggest challenge to maintaining order at the prison. LCI now employs drones with cameras and has installed new body scanners and 50-foot-high golf-course netting along the perimeter fence.
Following the riot, prison officials placed an unknown number of prisoners in segregation so that they could be investigated by the special prosecutors. The Post and Courier interviewed about a half-dozen of them, and nearly all said they had not been interviewed by investigators as of April 12, 2020, nearly two years after the incident. One prisoner said he had been in restrictive segregated housing for most of that period with little out-of-cell time.
“Mental health is a major issue back here,” he said. “We’re basically just sitting in lockup. It’s bad. If you’re going to charge me, charge me.”
The delay in bringing criminal indictments frustrated attorney James B. Moore III. He represents the estate of prisoner Eddie Gaskins, 32, who arrived at LCI two weeks before he was killed in the riot. The lawsuit filed on his estate’s behalf is one of about three dozen DOC faces related to the riot.
“This entire event was caught on video inside a maximum-security prison. Yet, no indictments,” Moore said in April 2020. “Frankly, the family of Mr. Gaskins is losing confidence that justice will prevail through the criminal justice system.”
Bakari Sellers, an attorney representing four prisoners injured in the riot as well as the family of another prisoner killed, Joshua Jenkins, expressed relief that indictments had finally been forthcoming. But he added that “the largest indictment” was on “the state’s chronic underfunding of the prison system that has caused a serious lack of resources for inmates and staff.”
Of the prisoners charged, the most notorious is Michael Juan Smith, who was convicted of a 2013 shooting near the University of South Carolina that left a bystander, student Martha Childress, paralyzed. The state Supreme Court overturned his attempted murder conviction in March 2020, saying that prosecutors had failed to prove the intent to harm Childress necessary to sustain the charge. He remains in custody on a weapons conviction. Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson said that his office “will likely retry the case.”
Source: postandcourier.com, thestate.com
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