Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

7 Inmates Dead, 17 Others Injured After Fighting At South Carolina Prison


In South Carolina, authorities say seven inmates were killed and 17 others injured overnight in the deadliest prison riot in the U.S. since 1993. Authorities believe smuggled cellphones inside the maximum security prison may have sparked the fighting. South Carolina Public Radio's Lauren - Laura Hunsberger has the story.

LAURA HUNSBERGER, BYLINE: The scene inside the Lee Correctional Institution was one of mayhem. The fighting lasted for about seven hours. Inmates were stabbed or slashed with homemade knives or beaten to death. At a press briefing today, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, Bryan Stirling, said the investigation is ongoing, but it appears to be gang-related.


BRYAN STIRLING: This was all about territory. This is about contraband. This is about cellphones. These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated.

HUNSBERGER: No prison employees were hurt in the incident, but the facility's history is peppered with violence. Correctional officers have been taken hostage, stabbed or beaten by inmates. In 2013, the violence prompted then-Governor Nikki Haley to propose budget increases at the state's maximum security prisons, including an unprecedented recommendation for staff raises.


STIRLING: We were losing 150 officers every year from 2011 till about two years ago, and then we broke even. Last year, we were up about a hundred.

HUNSBERGER: Staffing wasn't apparently an issue during this latest incident. Because of overlapping shifts, the prison had double the guards on duty when the riots broke out, but they needed even more to deal safely with the situation.

Governor Henry McMaster says there was another problem. Inmates were using illegal cellphones. He says the Federal Communications Commission should allow cell signals to be blocked inside these facilities.


HENRY MCMASTER: There are prisons all around this country that would be safer - federal prisons, state prisons, all - if this jamming were allowed.

HUNSBERGER: South Carolina is one of the states leading an effort to get the FCC to allow cell signal blocking in prisons. Other measures to prevent the influx of contraband phones, such as overhead nets, have proved less effective, but opponents say blocking signals would be a violation of rights and could cause safety issues in the event of an emergency. For NPR News, I'm Laura Hunsberger in Columbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Hunsberger