South Carolina Approves $6M to Settle Dozens of Lawsuits Connected to Deadly Prison Riot

South Carolina will pay $6 million to settle 81 lawsuits filed by or for inmates of the Lee Correctional Institution against the Department of Corrections in connection with a bloody riot.

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Officials with the State Fiscal Accountability Authority gave the unanimous approval for the deal on Tuesday with one abstention due to a conflict of interest.

The 2018 riot at Lee Correctional Institution saw seven inmates killed and 17 injured over the course of more than seven hours. Most of those killed were stabbed or slashed, while others appeared to have been beaten.

One inmate survivor said that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other, like some macabre woodpile.”

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Inmates work at the Lee Correctional Institution, in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 16, 2018 as the prison remains on lockdown after an overnight riot killed seven while also injuring 17 other inmates.

Corrections officials have blamed the violence—the worst U.S. prison riot in 25 years—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.

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Stirling told the Associated Press after Tuesday’s vote the deal next goes to the plaintiffs for signatures, before a court decides how to divvy up the money.

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 that delivery trucks, required to be inspected upon entering prison grounds, often ferried cellphones and other contraband.

Since the riot, numerous security improvements have been implemented across the prisons system and specifically at Lee, including a $1 million cell door locking system, 50-foot-high nets to limit contraband from being thrown over the fences and systems to detect cellphones and drones, which could be used to ferry in contraband.

Federal communications regulations continue to prevent the full use of the cell signal-jamming technology Stirling wants, however.

The number of maximum-security inmates at Lee has also dwindled from more than 1,300 at the time of the riot to 270, as of this week, according to corrections officials. Stirling said inmate assaults on each other, as well as on prison staff, have continually decreased in the years since the riot.

“I think our staff has been working hard on safety and security,” Stirling told AP. “And we’ve been working hard on getting funding for rehabilitation and reentry programs. There are avenues, if people want to better themselves when they come to the Department of Corrections.”

Lee Correctional Institution
In this April 10, 2019 file photo, prison staff work at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina. South Carolina officials gave initial approval Tuesday to a $6 million settlement to resolve dozens of prisoner lawsuits against the Department of Corrections following a riot that killed seven inmates.
Meg Kinnard, File/AP Photo

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