A civil rights organization is accusing South Carolina prison officials of using inmate cell phones as a scapegoat for the violent riot at Lee Correctional Institution this week. Officials with the local state chapter of the National Action Network are calling for an FBI investigation into the incident and for the prison’s warden to resign.
Prison officials said cell phones calls between inmates over money and territory instigated the riot. Seven prisoners were killed and 22 were seriously injured during more than seven hours of fighting between inmates.
Elder James Johnson, director of the South Carolina chapter of the National Action Network, said cell phones - some given to prisoners by guards - are not a new issue in prisons. He said a lack of funding and a shortage of guards is what made the prison ripe for a riot.
“We are not going to allow them to change the narrative to cell phones,” Johnson said. “They knew they needed extra security.”
Johnson said prisoners have a constitutional right to be protected, and he blames the warden for not having enough guards in place when the riot happened.
“He didn’t do a good enough job to protect those people," Johnson said. "He needs to step down.”
More than 1,500 prisoners are incarcerated at the Lee County prison. According to the Post and Courier newspaper, one in five security positions there is vacant - and that’s been the case for the past five years.
State prison Director Bryan Stirling said Monday that the prison had 44 guards on duty when the riot broke out. That was double the amount of guards usually on duty due to overlapping shifts. Stirling said they did not have enough guards to safely go into the dorms until SWAT teams and other reinforcements arrived three hours later.
“That tells me they didn’t have a plan in action to stop it," Johnson said. "When they went in, the bodies were already piled up and people were already dead."
Johnson and other advocates called for the state legislature to approve more funds to increase prison guards’ salaries in an effort to recruit and retain more of them. State lawmakers have raised salaries for corrections officers, but they still average in the low $30,000 range.
Statewide, 20 South Carolina prisoners have been killed by fellow inmates over the past 16 months.