Chaos and killing reigned for more than seven hours Sunday night and into Monday morning at a South Carolina prison where some of the state's worst criminals are kept.
Seven inmates were slashed, stabbed and beaten to death, and 17 more were wounded in a series of fights lasting until 3 a.m. Monday at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison just outside rural Bishopville.
The fight, which spanned three dorms, was likely gang related, and spawned from a disagreement over gang territory and contraband, S.C. Department of Corrections Director Brian Stirling said.
Gov. Henry McMaster said the violence, while unfortunate, should be expected sometimes in prisons, where violent people are locked up for rehabilitation and to protect the public.
"It's not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside the prison — any prison in the country," McMaster said.
The night of violence began unfolding around 7:15 p.m. Sunday when inmate-on-inmate fighting broke out in the first dorm, officials said.
Corrections officers saw the fight break out in the first dorm, called for back-up and waited for response teams around the state to come to their aide, Stirling said.
About 44 personnel were at the prison when the fighting broke out, double the number of officers normally on shift. Four officers were staffing the dorm, which is home to 250 to 260 inmates, during the fight.
At about 8:30 p.m., fights broke out in two more dorms, which also held about 250 inmates and were staffed with four officers, Stirling said. At 9 p.m., other response teams across the state were activated and called to Lee Correctional. The State Law Enforcement Division responded about 20 minutes later.
As the clock approached 11:30 p.m., responders entered the first dorm to take it back from prisoners, Stirling said. An hour later, responders retook the second. The third dorm wasn't recaptured until 2 a.m.
The prison was secure just before 3 a.m. EMS personnel didn't clear the prison until about 5 a.m.
Videos reportedly taken by inmates inside the prison and shared to social media showed a grisly scene after the riot.
One video, shot from what looks like a catwalk on the upper level of a cell block, shows towels or clothing items on the floor and a long trail of what appears to be smeared blood leading to a larger puddle of blood near a wall. Another video shows a bloody man lying on his side against a wall, not moving.
The victims were serving sentences ranging from 10 years to life. They were identified as:
▪ Eddie Casey Jay Gaskins, 32, who was serving 10 years for domestic violence.
▪ Joshua Svwin Jenkins, 33, who was sentenced for burglary, voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder.
▪ Michael Milledge, 44, who was sentenced for assault and battery and multiple drug convictions.
▪ Cornelius Quantral McClary, 33, who was sentenced for assault and battery, burglary, criminal conspiracy and weapons convictions.
▪ Damonte Marquez Rivera, 24, who was serving a life sentence for murder, armed robbery, burglary and kidnapping.
▪ Corey Scott, 38, who was serving 22 years for assault and battery, criminal conspiracy, carjacking, aggravated assault and battery, kidnapping and armed robbery.
▪ Raymond Angelo Scott, 28, who was serving 25 years for assault and battery and multiple weapons convictions.
Sunday night's seven deaths are the most in any South Carolina prison in recent history, The Associated Press reported. It was the nation's most deadly prison riot in 25 years, according to the Reuters news agency.
About 55 miles from Columbia, Lee Correctional houses about 1,600 inmates, and they are among South Carolina's most violent, longest-serving offenders.
The prison has been the site of several large, violent insurrections, including one in which an inmate overpowered a guard and used his keys to free others from their cells. Among the incidents:
▪ Sunday's fatal fights came three weeks after inmates briefly held an officer hostage and took control of part of a dorm.
▪ In July 2017, one inmate died during a fight.
▪ In January 2016, five inmates were injured in a fight in one of the housing units. Five months later, one inmate was killed and another injured during an incident.
▪ In 2012 and 2013, the prison was taken over twice by inmates.
▪ In December 2007, five corrections officers were hurt in an attack by three inmates in one of the dorms.
South Carolina prisons, as a whole, are rife with violence, illegal weapons and gangs.
Last year, a dozen inmates were killed in South Carolina prisons, the highest number in years. In one incident, four were killed by fellow prisoners at the state's Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia.
In just three and a half months of 2018, nine inmates have been slain.
The prison system is "a tinderbox that is just getting hotter and hotter," said Georgetown attorney Ed Bell, who has represented injured or killed inmates and their families. "The gangs now run the prisons."
It's well known in prisons, Bell said, that if you aren't a gang member, you have to become one or pay protection money to the gangs. "If you don't, you'll be attacked and stabbed."
State officials blamed Sunday night's Lee Correctional riots primarily on gangs, contraband and under-staffing.
"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they're incarcerated," Stirling said Monday, adding officials suspect cellphones were used to inform inmates in the second and third dorms that a fight had broken out in the first.
Stirling and McMaster called for the Federal Communications Commission to do away with laws that prohibit cellphone jamming in prisons.
An illegal cellphone allowed one inmate to exchange text messages with an Associated Press reporter after the riots.
"I just saw three dead on the sidewalk outside of my unit. One guy is still alive and breathing, but just barely," the inmate told AP.
The inmate said that many cell door locks were already broken before the riot and that he and other prisoners roamed around freely. Hours after the violence started, no correctional officers or medical personnel attended to the dead or dying, he said.
"It's been over two hours, but no COs (corrections officers) have responded to this unit, and no medical personnel have attempted to render any kind of aid," he wrote to the AP reporter. "The COs never even attempted to render aid, nor quell the disturbance. They just sat in the control bubble, called the issue in, then sat on their collective asses."
Stirling said the guards followed protocol by backing out and asking for support. It took several hours to restore order, but once a special SWAT team entered, the inmates gave up peacefully, he said. No prison guards were hurt.
In the aftermath, some S.C. lawmakers said Monday it's past time to reform prison conditions and that the state must do more to drive down the state's prison population, using sentencing reform to weed out non-violent inmates.
"A mass-casualty incident inside a correctional facility is simply unacceptable," S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said Monday. "Rioting like this is a symptom (that) our criminal justice system is broken and needs reform now."
"I hate that tragedy is always the spark to get the fire of change going," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Bamberg Democrat who represented an inmate slain at a state prison on New Year's Eve. "When are we going to say, as a state, that our people deserve better, that people don't have to die before we actually say, 'Let's fix it.' "
Staff writers Emily Bohatch, Dwayne McLemore, John Monk, Maayan Schechter and Jamie Self and The Associated Press contributed.