Deaths at Lee County prison shouldn’t be a surprise

lee correctional

Lee Correctional Institution, via Google Maps

You’ve probably seen this, which made national news:

At least seven inmates are dead and 17 people are injured after hours-long rioting at a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, according to the state’s corrections authorities.

Several fights broke out among inmates in three housing units at the Lee Correctional Institution about 7:15 p.m. Sunday, and it took authorities more than 7½ hours, until 2:55 a.m. Monday, to secure the prison, officials said.

No officers or staff members were harmed, the corrections department added….

We can at least be thankful for that last part. But the fact that an “hours-long” riot can occur at one of our prisons, with authorities unable to stop violence that killed seven, should tell us we were lucky on that score. Two officers were stabbed at this same institution in 2015.

What I said in response on Twitter is pretty much all I have to say before turning the topic over to y’all:

67 thoughts on “Deaths at Lee County prison shouldn’t be a surprise

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    As for how the officers and staff stayed safe, Meg Kinnard reports:

      1. Richard

        Maybe Meg Kinnard would like to work as a Correctional Officer for about six months and then come back and rewrite her story. If you’re outnumbered 100:1 as an unarmed correction officer, you damned right I’m going to stay in my locked bubble and relay play-by-play that would make Howard Cossell proud.

        As far as those killed and hurt, it sounds like gang members vs. gang members… so they did us all a favor.

        1. Norm Ivey

          They didn’t do me a favor. Their crimes may mean that they deserve to be locked away from the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to die while in the state’s custody.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author


            But attitudes such as Richard’s are the reason why we have so many in prison, and spend too little to keep prisons secure…

            1. Richard

              Maybe you could volunteer to keep some of these medium security prisoners in your guest room and free up bunks in prison.

              The people in medium security prisons aren’t bad check writers and guys who failed to pay child support… go to The State and look and see what they were in for. But that’s beside the point, guys like Brad would prefer they be out among the rest of us. The type of people who call their crimes, “mistakes”.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                You are completely missing the point. You’re evidently one of those people who think anyone who doesn’t want to lock people up is some kind of soft-hearted liberal.

                But I assure you my objection is based in hard reality.

                Why would a state want to go to the trouble and expense of locking someone away? The only reason I can think of is to protect society. So, you’d want to lock up violent offenders.

                But if that’s all we did, our prisons would be a lot emptier, and easy to manage.

                People who don’t pose a threat to anyone should pay for their crimes through fines or community service, or have their liberty curtailed with electronic monitoring. Locking up the nonviolent with the violent is just insane, and asking for trouble.

                You don’t have to have a soft heart to see that. You just need open eyes, and the ability to approach policy rationally rather than emotionally…

                1. Richard

                  Drug dealer selling heroin which is laced with fentanyl, fine and let him go?

                  A meth cooker cooking inside a trailer house with his kids inside the house, fine and let him go?

                  A convicted drug trafficker, arrested with 500 hits of crack, fine and let him go?

                  Drug dealer selling to high school students, fine and let him go?

                  How’s your eyesight now? Do any of these people pose a threat to society?

                  We’re not talking about guys who are selling 1/4 ounces of pot.

                  I’m not making decisions based on emotion, if you’re going to do a crime that has a high probability to kill or negatively alter someone’s life then you need to be taken out of society one way or the other. I agree with Donald Trump, at some point drug dealers and traffickers need to be put down.

                  I’m also for jail sentences for habitual texting and driving.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    I didn’t say fine and let him go. I said fine, community service, electronic monitoring. There are a lot of smarter, cheaper ways to punish people than to lock them away and have to feed and guard them…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            She’s doing her job and doing it well. As her colleague Jeffrey Collins noted, a little while before the Tweets I cite above:

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              It’s unusual for such a news report to have such a report from inside the institution. Normally, all you’d have is official sources, since reporters can’t go in and wander around looking for people to talk to…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It strikes me that maybe Meg was speaking to an unusually literate prisoner. I’m referring to “collective asses.” Also, in another tweet she quotes this or another prisoner thusly:

      Three were already dead, and a fourth lay for several hours, trying to get up before he “started into that ‘death rattle’ people often hear about, but never experience first-hand.”

      That really sounds like the observation of someone who reads a lot. I’ve often wondered what a “death rattle” is like, when seeing one mentioned in a book (if you’d seen a movie in which it was depicted, you wouldn’t wonder). Her source was anonymous, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his prison nickname is something like “Professor”…

      1. Richard

        “I’ve often wondered what a “death rattle” is like”

        It’s exactly as you’d imagine it. Even if you never witness it, one day you’ll likely experience it.

  2. bud

    South Carolina government is under-funded everywhere. And the results are showing. Traffic deaths are on the rise also as we cut back on needed road maintenance and trooper strength. Our schools fester. Our air and water are at risk because of funding issues at DHEC. DSS is likewise strapped and children suffer. But at least the governor is in line for a raise.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It just hit me that I drove to the Grand Strand and back weekend before last — six hours on the road — and I don’t think I saw a single one…

    1. Richard

      You haven’t kept up with DOT salaries lately, they’re some of the highest paid employees in the state… at least on the Engineering side. My neighbor is one and over the past 15 years he’s doubled his salary and is now over $100,000.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The engineering side? I think we’re talking about the COs here. But regardless of pay, I imagine it would be hard to find people willing to do the work. Every prison or jail I’ve ever been in is a place where no sane person would want to spend time, as an inmate OR a guard…

        1. Richard

          bud was talking about highway patrol and maintenance… which is why I brought up DOT engineers.

      2. bud

        That’s funny. 100k salaries are pretty rare at the SCDOT. But to get experienced people that’s what you need to pay. Probably make much more in the private sector.

        1. Richard

          Look up Engineer IV’s… when one gets a raise it seems they all get a raise. DOT is one of the best paid employers of all the state agencies. And then look at what we have for roads. Are we getting our money’s worth?

          1. bud

            Are we getting our money’s worth? Given the very low rate of taxes we pay I’d say yes, absolutely. You get what you pay for. Engineer IVs are pretty high ranking, and rare, employees. Besides, is 100k really that high of a salary in 2018?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Bud, you’d appreciate this…

              My grandfather, Gerald H. Warthen, was originally from Maryland. His wife was from an old South Carolina family, and in retirement, they moved down to Due West. My grandfather died in 1958, when I was not yet 5 years old. My Dad remembers that his Dad used to talk about how much better the roads in South Carolina were, compared to Maryland.

              Can you imagine anyone saying that today?

              Back then, the people in charge of SC government still took pride in building things and keeping them up. They had not yet become twisted by hatred of government and all its works…

            2. Richard

              So first $100k is rare for DOT, then when I checked and saw that there are several people there who make that amount or more then it’s suddenly not that much money today. From what I can tell, his daily job isn’t that much different today than it was 15 years ago when I moved next to him.

              Also you’re familiar with the state’s pay bands, there is typically as much as $30,000 range, yet if you go to DOT salaries and sort them it seems that everyone with a certain title is within just a few thousand dollars of each other. So every Engineer IV is equal in skill according to their pay. Same with Engineer III, etc… So it appears to me at DOT if someone gets a raise, they all get a raise.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Interesting. One of them was in, at least in part, for drug possession — and for crack, which as we know has long carried disproportionate sentences, in his case 25 years.

      And one of the things Doug and I agree on is that people shouldn’t be in prison for that.

      One glimmer of light on that problem, though: The WashPost Fact Checker says that despite what we hear about the prisons being “full” of people caught with small amounts of dope, in state prisons nationally “only 3.4 percent of prisoners were in jail for all types of drug possession.”

      Of course, that’s still too many, but it tells us that the percentage of prisoners who are in for that is much less than I thought it was…

      1. Richard

        You mean the guy who also was sentenced to 10 years for assault and battery? This is what these prisoners were in for this time, what’s this guy’s rap sheet look like? I bet it’s longer than your arm and this wasn’t his first stint in prison.

          1. Richard

            Okay, I just checked again… you’re going to have to tell me the one who you’re talking about that’s in for only drugs. The seven I looked through were convicted of violent crimes on top of drugs.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I didn’t say only drugs; I said in part:

              Michael Milledge Assault & Battery 1st – 10 yrs – Marlboro Co. Illegal Drugs Possession – 1 year – Greenville MDP Narc Sched – 3rd. Sub – 25 yrs – Greenville Trafficking in Crack Cocaine – 25 yrs – Greenville Firearms Provision – 5 yrs – Greenville

              Of course, in his case I’d lock him up for the assault and battery.

              But something seems backwards here. He got 10 for violence, and 5 years on a firearms charge, and a total of 50 years for drugs…

              Anyway, go back and read my comment again. I brought the guy up as a way of getting to the topic of people in prison on drug possession charges, which I had just learned this morning was a much-smaller percentage of prisoners than I (and John Boehner) had thought…

              1. Richard

                So why is he in the Lee County Correctional Facility… because of the drugs or because of his assault and battery charge? If he was in prison just for selling drugs and no other reason he’d probably be in a minimum security prison and not a medium security prison.

                Was this his first drug conviction? I’m betting it’s not.

                One punch thrown and landing can get you charged with assault and battery. Would you throw a guy in prison for 50 years for throwing a punch?

                Regardless, this guy is dead and I doubt the world will be a worse place because of it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not that big of a deal. The bigger picture is how he was killed, not the fact that he was killed.

  3. Sally Huguley

    The most interesting aspect of the AP reporter’s article is that she received her information from an inmate talking by cellphone. Question: why does an inmate in a maximum security prison even have a cellphone? It’s illegal. Of course, he doesn’t want his name used because the phone would be confiscated, and he would be charged. As you recall, an inmate used a cellphone to arrange a hit on a prison guard. Easy access to cellphones by inmates is a significant problem in the state’s prisons. Perhaps, yesterday’s riot at Lee was coordinated between gang member inmates using cellsphones. Corrections officials say cellphones are thrown over prison walls. One was dropped by a drone. The cells are smuggled in by family members, visiting friends and/or volunteers. Corrections employees have been arrested for illegally smuggling cellphones into prisons bribed by inmates. (You know inmates have commissary accounts funded by grandmothers, wives, girlfriends and others.)
    Apparently, Corrections has had a difficult time working with cell phone companies, which refuse to jam cellphone calls at prisons for fear of jeopardizing cellphone use in areas near the prisons. I’m sure their lobbyists have convinced legislators that blocking cellphone reception is not a solution. Also, the FCC has been no help, even after the prison guard was murdered.
    It’s hard to understand that with today’s technology there isn’t a way to place a “cone of silence” over the prisons.
    Perhaps Meg Kinnard should do a follow up and ask her source how he got this cellphone. Thrown over the fence, through his kindly pastor’s visit, or baked into grandma’s pound cake? Also, a follow up should be done on the lack of cooperation from cellphone coverage providers, and the reluctance of the FCC to get involved.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Bryan Stirling, the director of the Dept. of Corrections has been shouting from the rooftops about the issue of contraband cell phones in prison for a while. They are a scourge, and they are used for all sorts of bad things. He’s been trying (unsuccessfully thus far) to get the FCC to allow cell jamming technology to be used in prisons.

      Thus far, the FCC has refused to act on this request.

      1. Richard

        Make possession of a cell phone an automatic 5 year solitary confinement sentence on top of their current sentence and all privileges revoked for 5 years. No visitors, no canteen, no television… one hour a day to shower and/or recreation then back to their hole.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    I’m no bleeding-heart liberal, but if we’re going to lock people up, we need to provide adequate staffing and provide adequate security to prevent prison from being Thunderdome.

    I have no earthly idea what Catherine Templeton means when she said this:

    “Under Henry McMaster’s watch, we’ve seen prisoners jumping fences, rioting, and putting our correctional officers in danger time and time again. McMaster can’t hide from the systemic problems facing our penal system until after the election. We need a conservative buzzsaw with the guts to do what it takes to fix the problem. As governor, I will lead a major crackdown to fix our dangerously broken corrections system and treat criminals like criminals.”

    Okay, I’m with her through the first two sentences. But in the third sentence she says we need a “conservative buzzsaw”? Okay, leaving aside the political nature of the buzzsaw, what on earth does a buzzsaw mean? I have no idea.

    In the final sentence, she absolutely loses me.

    “As governor, I will lead a major crackdown to fix our dangerously broken corrections system and treat criminals like criminals.”

    What, what?

    What does “treat criminals like criminals” mean? What are we doing now that isn’t treating inmates like criminals? Are we just going to shoot them out back behind the courthouse following sentencing so they don’t get killed in prison riots? I mean, I guess that would cut out the middleman of letting other prisoners kill them.

    Our prison system doesn’t need a “crackdown”. It needs to be funded adequately if we’re going to house people and maintain some semblance of order.

    It’s like everything she says is motivated to make me NOT vote for her. I really don’t get her campaign at all.

    Can anyone explain to me what “treat criminals like criminals” means in real terms?

    1. Richard

      ” What are we doing now that isn’t treating inmates like criminals?”

      Three hots and a cot, no requiring them to work, television, cable, conjugal visits, full commissary where they can load up on snacks and candy, hanging out in general population… for some prison is a better life than what they had going in. This is prison, not summer camp.

      What happened to road crews, if they have nothing to do let them break big rocks into small rocks.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You ever spend any time in a prison — or even a county jail? I have — mostly during my reporting days in Tennessee, although I’ve been in a couple of SC lockups.

        I’ve never been in one that I wanted to stay in for 10 minutes, even as a visitor. But work is work, and sometimes I had to…

        1. Richard

          So why is there a commissary in a prison? Why isn’t there a mandatory work requirement? Why do they get televisions in their cells? Etc… Like I said prison isn’t summer camp.

          No I’ve never spent time in a jail or prison… but for some there prison is easier than it is on the outside. I graduated high school with a perfect example. He steals a car, gets thrown in for 2-3 years and gets out, after about six months he decides he doesn’t want to work so he steals another car, high speed chase, resists arrest and back in he goes. It’s been a revolving door since he was 18 years old. At the prison he’s in they get steak once every two weeks… do you eat steak once every two weeks? Growing up he didn’t. He works in the kitchen when he’s in, he orders things he likes to eat. I’ve heard he’s fond of fruit cocktail, so there’s at least one can in each shipment. He’s in a minimum security prison.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yep, there are people whose lives are so bad that they’d rather be in prison, where at least they know where their next meal is coming from.

            I don’t know anyone who would trade places with them…

            1. Bryan Caskey

              But again, what does that have to do with security? Are there going to be fewer riots if we remove the commissary, the A.C., or make them less comfortable?

              1. Richard

                How about we treat them like inmates and not guests? From what I’m reading the inmates are running the place not the administration.

              2. Brad Warthen Post author

                No. But I think Richard and I had moved away from security and were debating the efficacy of various forms of punishment. But maybe not….

                Actually, I think that if all you care about is security, you ought to make prison more like a country club. Everybody would be happy, and nobody would want to escape. Of course, there might be some terrific arguments over the dress code, based on my experience with private clubs… 🙂

                On second thought, you don’t want people fighting to get IN. Better make it just pleasant enough to keep everyone content, and make them not want to rock the boat.

                But be sure to tell them that the road beyond the gate is “off-limits”… (Dang! I couldn’t find a video to illustrate that reference to the best skit ever on “The State”)

              3. Richard

                Are there more riots today then say back when you had to get up and go out and work like a dog 6-7 days a week and were too tired to get out of line when you got back to your cell? Back when prisons were less like adult daycare. Does anyone ever get sentenced to “hard time” these days? What exactly is “hard time” now… losing your phone privileges for a week? How many riots have we had in super-max facilities, which is how all violent offenders should serve their time. Non-violent offenders should be in something similar to Marine boot camp.

        1. Richard

          How about it giving them something to do beside think of ways to harm others. You know, make prison a bad place to be, not a place to hang around until you get out.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            One more time, you REALLY need to visit a prison. You will then understand, beyond the slightest doubt, that a prison is a very, very bad place to be…

            1. Richard

              Why would I visit a prison? I don’t care what goes on in there… if they spend all day sodomizing each other and beating each other then so be it… don’t like it, don’t go back. If it’s eating snacks from the canteen, laying around in your air conditioned and heated cell watching your clear case television waiting for your toilet wine to ferment, hanging out in general population with fellow gang members playing cards, standing in line to be fed three times a day, or walking around the yard playing basketball, handball or lifting weights all day then it sounds like it could be an enjoyable experience for those who had a rough life.

              I wouldn’t enjoy being there, but there are people who are more comfortable in prison than outside of prison. I already mentioned one case of someone I know who fits this profile.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      As usual, she’s doing her best to sound like a raving lunatic, because:
      a. She thinks that’s what the voters want.
      b. She thinks they’re all raving lunatics, too.

      1. Harry Harris

        Wasn’t Templeton’s tenure at DHEC marked by some high-profile goof-ups like a TB case screw-up and a Lake Marion toxic waste monitoring flub. Add to that a lot of grandstanding over non-existent unions and “unnecessary” regulations, coupled with a lot of job-switching. Pandering and straw-man attacks seem to be her chief MO.

          1. Harry Harris

            Now she grandstands farther. Calls for firing squads. Hoping to get the “gun happy” vote and pander to the kill-’em quick” folks. Is she shrill or what?

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      That “conservative buzzsaw” thing is really getting to be like fingernails on a blackboard.

      Every time she says it, I’m like “Elect anyone but her. Anyone…”

      So in that sense, she’s succeeding in becoming the Trump of this race…

  5. Doug Ross

    Let’s deal with two ends of the system that don’t help matters: first, legalize marijuana so it can be taxed and regulated and stop making people into criminals for ingesting an herb that makes them mellow; second, enforce the death penalty swiftly — not as a deterrent but as a punishment (and maybe remove some of the ring leaders of the prison gangs in the process). You kill someone on purpose, you’re dead. If that makes some people squeamish, sorry.

    1. Richard

      Death sentence should be carried out within 30 days. Death sentence for over certain amount of drugs held, sold, or sold where death was involved. Death sentence for convicts who are gang leaders. Murder someone while in prison… straight to ol’ Sparky.

  6. Sassy

    Richard: “if you’re going to do a crime that has a high probability to kill or negatively alter someone’s life then you need to be taken out of society one way or the other.”

    Kind of like how Trump did the crime of not installing working sprinklers in his apartment building in New York, which led to the “negative alteration of someone’s life” (aka death) of an innocent man? I’ll be waiting for your response that confirmed criminal murderer Donald J. Trump should be “taken out of society” and forced to “break big rocks into smaller ones.” Won’t be holding my breath, though. …

    1. Richard

      Sassy, are you basing your question on fact or emotion? What were the building codes at the time the building was built? If Trump’s building was built after sprinkler systems were mandated then you have a legitimate case. If it were built after the mandate were in place, then how did it pass code inspection? What percentage of apartments in Columbia, SC have working sprinkler systems in each unit? I’ve lived in two while I was here, including a new one built in 1994 which didn’t have a sprinkler system in it.

  7. Sassy

    I will gladly amend what was removed from my comment so it is not directed at any one person:

    Ignorant and hateful hypocrites abound in this world, this country, and the great state of South Carolina. Thank God our founding fathers had the foresight to create the 8th Amendment to protect human beings from those who would attempt to inflict cruel and unusual punishments on their fellow humans.

    1. Richard

      How us “hard labor” cruel and unusual punishment? It’s not that much different than a laborer job on a construction site. While in college I’ve worked as a construction laborer, and in one case we spent a week breaking a concrete slab into pieces easier to pick up… breaking rocks if you will. Should I file a case that my rights were violated 32 years ago?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I did that ONE day. I was part of a carpenter crew building apartment houses, and the project got to a point where they didn’t need as many of us, and I was one of a bunch laid off.

        But I’d gotten to be friends with a supervisor, and when I told him about it, he found something for me so I could keep working. Someone had laid a concrete patio in the wrong place, and I was given a sledgehammer and told to break it up.

        That would have been OK — not great, but OK — except that I’d had an accident my last day as a carpenter and had fallen from the second story, landing on my lower back. I was really lucky in the way I’d landed and wasn’t seriously hurt, but I was pretty sore.

        Anyway, it hurt worse and worse with each swing of the sledgehammer, to the point that I quit and went to see a doctor. Long story short, I was going back to school in a few days, so I just went ahead and quit the summer job to give my back a chance to recover…

        Some of the guys on the crew — guys for whom this was their livelihood — told me I should file for worker’s comp. I brushed that off, partly because I didn’t NEED that help, but mainly because I was embarrassed about the stupid way I’d been injured.

        I’ll tell about that later. Gotta run right now…

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