Are cellphones really to blame for spike in S.C. prison violence?

BISHOPVILLE, S.C. -- The deadly, seven-hour riot that broke out in a South Carolina prison last weekend occurred amid a rising tide of violence within the state's prison system. State corrections officials were quick Monday to blame contraband cellphones as major contributing factors in the bloodshed, but observers say there are other reasons for the alarming spike in assaults and deaths behind bars.

The most recent outbreak of violence at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville left seven prisoners dead and 17 more wounded, and is now being called the worst U.S. prison riot in the last 25 years.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, South Carolina corrections department director Bryan Stirling said officials believe the riot was "all about territory, all about contraband" and cellphones at the prison, which houses some of the state's worst and longest-serving offenders. Stirling said gangs were fighting over territory and said cellphones help them continue criminal activity behind bars.

"These people are fighting about real money and real territory when they are incarcerated," Stirling said.

Gov. Henry McMaster told the press that "people in this prison have very violent records, and we cannot expect them to give up their violent ways when they go to prison." Stirling and McMaster again called on the federal government to change the law and allow state officials to block the signals so that prisoners can't use the cellphones -- a debate that's been at issue in the state for several years, according to Steve Bailey, contributing columnist for the Post and Courier.

Justin Bamberg, an attorney and South Carolina state representative, told Crimesider that instead of "whining about the FCC not letting us block cellphone signals," officials should focus on access to dangerous weapons used in the riot. Bamberg shared disturbing video from inside the prison with Crimesider, which he said he obtained from an inmate. The video -- captured on a cellphone -- appears to show one inmate carrying a large weapon; another inmate is seen sitting against a wall and then walking away, leaving a large smear of blood on the wall.

His clothes appear to be covered in blood.

"No one was stabbed with a cellphone. No one was stabbed with a bag of marijuana or a box of Newports," Bamberg said. "These people were stabbed with six and seven-inch shanks."

Bamberg accused state officials of "very poor leadership" in their response to the deadly riot.

"We have in our state the worst prison riot that America has seen the the last 25 years, and one of the first things out of your mouth when you address your citizens is -- 'well, this is prison and these things are going to happen?'" Bamberg said, referring to McMaster's comments. "You do not just 'end up' with seven inmates butchered, and another couple of dozen hauled off to the hospital. That's not supposed to just happen."

Bailey, who has been closely tracking assaults and deaths in South Carolina's correction facilities over the past two years, says the data he's analyzed indicates there are more complex issues driving the violence. While the South Carolina Department of Corrections publishes pages of statistics on its website -- from average daily inmate populations to admissions by type of offense -- it does not publish assaults and homicides, except in cases where officers are assaulted.

"I had a big fight with the prison system to get these numbers," Bailey said.

According to Department of Corrections data obtained by the Post and Courier, incidents of assault in South Carolina state prisons have risen by over 68 percent since 2013; from 72 a year, to 121 last year. Inmate homicides in the state rose from one in 2013 to five in 2016 and 12 in 2017, according to the data.

"There are cellphones in every prison in America," Bailey told Crimesider. "There's something else going on here too."

What's behind the fight over cellphone blocking?

SCDC has been petitioning the FCC for years to allow prisons to use cellphone jammers in the interest of "public safety." Led by then-governor Nikki Haley, 10 republican governors signed on to the effort in 2016. Bamberg told Crimesider that officials began fixating on cellphone jamming after solitary confinement became politically unfeasible as a deterrent to using them. 

Right now, the Communications Act prohibits all non-federal agencies from using jamming devices. However, after petitions and testimony from South Carolina officials about the reported threat posed by illegal cellphones, then-FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai promised to work with states on the issue. In February, the FCC hosted a meeting with law enforcement, corrections officials, and wireless providers to discuss how to address the problem.

Prison Riot

South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling addresses the media during a press conference following a prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on Mon., April 16, 2018, in Columbia, S.C.

AP

In the past, the FCC has opposed waiving these restrictions on the basis that it could interfere with local 911 calls and critical radio communications, affecting emergency response teams, and potentially become useful to terrorist organizations. Wireless industry groups also oppose the use of jammers; in a letter sent to the FCC in January, trade group CTIA said that shutting down cellphone communications should only be done through a court order.

According to Paul Wright, director of the prisoner rights advocacy group Human Rights Defense Center, prison telecom giants Securus and Global Tel Link have been active in the campaign to enable signal jamming in prisons. "The reason they want to use the blocking devices is to drive up the use of the prison telephone monopoly," says Wright. "These companies also own the cellphone blocking companies that make the devices, so they stand to profit both ways."

Securus and Global Tel Link didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from Crimesider. Global Tel Link is the service provider for Lee Correctional Institution. According to the company's customer service center, calls to Lee from a New York number cost 21 cents per minute; it costs 20 cents for an inmate to dial out.

Stirling has since announced that his department is already moving forward with an alternate method of blocking cellphone communications, according to reports by CBS affiliate WLTX-TV. Tecore, a Maryland-based telephone company, has entered into a three-year contract with the state worth around $1.5 million.

According to Tecore spokesperson Markie Britton, the company uses a technology it calls "managed access," which unlike jamming devices, allows the operator to selectively permit or deny communications from cellphones. It is compliant with FCC regulations, and does not pose any threat to communications outside of the targeted facility. According to Britton, the company is also working with state correctional facilities in Maryland and Mississippi, but she was unable to disclose contracts with other states that have not yet made public announcements.

Last year, the Human Rights Defense Center accused FCC chairman Ajit Pai of having a conflict of interest during his years as a commissioner. Pai was a commissioner between 2012 and January 2017, when he was appointed chairman.

HRDC wrote that Pai, who used to provide legal representation to Securus, "has vigorously and consistently taken action to undercut all efforts to impose federal regulations, including rate caps, on the Inmate Calling Services (ICS) industry, which benefits Securus -- his former client -- as well as other ICS providers."

In 2016, Pai organized an FCC hearing in South Carolina, failing to disclose that the panel included a Securus employee. After Pai's appointment as chairman, Bryan Stirling testified before the FCC on the problem of illegal cellphones. In an emailed response to Crimesider, FCC press secretary Tina Pelkey said that "Chairman Pai's participation in the inmate calling rulemaking were and are in full compliance with both the letter and spirit of government ethics rules."

Wright, of the Human Rights Defense Center, says another question is why the South Carolina prison system can't control its employees. The sheer number of illegal cellphones being smuggled into the state prisons points to the collusion of prison guards, he said, who see it as an "easy way to supplement their income."

In January, Stirling told the Post and Courier that the state of South Carolina had confiscated around 6,300 contraband cellphones and cellphone parts in 2017.

The SCDC hasn't yet responded to detailed questions submitted by Crimesider.

Other factors driving violence

Bailey noted that the rise in assaults and homicides coincide with state decarceration efforts.

"While the prison population's been going down, the violence has been going up, and the city and state hasn't been doing very much to address that. Clearly they have a huge shortage of prison guards there. About one in four jobs are vacant right now," he said.

After passing prison reforms in 2010, South Carolina's prison population dropped 14 percent by 2016, according to SCDC data analyzed by Pew Charitable Trusts. Meanwhile, the percentage of violent offenders in prison rose from 52 percent in 2009, to 66 percent in 2016.

That 14 percent drop is small relative to other states, says Wright, who doesn't believe the two trends are related.

Wright suggests that a better explanation for the violence is lack of funding for "incentive programs"-- vocational, academic and work programs for prisoners.

"They've steadily cut back what little programs they had, and they're just warehousing people in under-staffed, overcrowded prisons," said Wright. "Prison and penal operations have been studied pretty extensively for the last 15 years. When you take away all hope and you take away any reason for [inmates] to behave themselves, then that's when you start having higher levels of violence, assaults, and attacks."

Another reason for the violence is staff corruption, Wright said, made worse by low wages and a high turnover rate. Speaking to the press on Monday, Stirling said his department needs some 500 more front-line employees.

"A prison guard in New York starts out and they're making $50,000 a year with excellent benefits," said Wright. According to information provided to Crimesider by SCDC, starting salaries range from $31,000 for minimum security to $34,000 a year in a maximum security facility -- including the 24 percent increase announced this week.

"The New York prison system has its problems too, but high staff turnover isn't one of them," said Wright.

Although a strong critic of private prisons, Wright said that "one of the things that they're pretty good about is that they do fire people. So if you're a warden of a private prison and there's a riot or a mass killing, chances are you're going to be out of a job the next day."

Riot response under fire

According to texts and emails sent to the Human Rights Defense Center from inmates at Lee Correctional Institute, "the guards were nowhere to be seen for the duration" of the riot. The first fight started in a dorm about 7:15 p.m. Sunday and appeared to be contained before suddenly starting in two other dorms. The prison was finally secured around 2:55 a.m. Monday, the corrections department told WLTX-TV.  

The slain were identified as Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera; Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary and Joshua Jenkins. Most died of stab or slash wounds; the remainder appeared to have been beaten, Lee County Coroner Larry Logan said.

Prison Riot

These undated photos provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows, from top row from left, Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott and Damonte Rivera; bottom row from left, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary and Joshua Jenkins. The seven inmates were killed, and at least 17 prisoners wounded, in a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on early Monday, April 16, 2018, in Bishopville, S.C. 

South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP

"It's one thing for a violent incident to happen quickly, but when it goes on for hour after hour after hour -- where are the guards?" Wright asked.

A prisoner who spoke with the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity said he said he saw bodies "literally stacked on top of each other, like some macabre woodpile." He said it was hours before guards entered the dorm to help the wounded and dying.

"The COs (corrections officers) never even attempted to render aid, nor quell the disturbance," he said. "They just sat in the control bubble, called the issue in, then sat on their collective asses."

The prisoner told The Associated Press he saw several attackers taunt a rival gang member who was badly injured and later died. He said he believed the inmate would have had "a fighting chance if someone had simply opened the gate and let the others carry him up front."

"At one point, you had these guys who were stabbed, who were outside kind of in a pile -- but they were still alive," Bamberg told Crimesider. "But because the guards wouldn't come in, they also wouldn't open any of the gates to let people out. So these guys who according to some people's perceptions could have maybe survived had they gotten medical treatment -- didn't get any, and therefore they died."

Corrections officials say guards followed procedure by backing out of the dorms and awaiting backup response. In the press conference Monday afternoon, South Carolina corrections department director Bryan Stirling said the response teams entered as fast as they could.

"We gathered as many people as we could, as quickly as we could and went in as soon as we thought it was safe for our staff," he said.

The deadly incident is being investigated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. But Bamberg says families of those slain may have to wait a long time before learning what happened to their loved ones.

"Unfortunately the state government is not that transparent sometimes," Bamberg said. "And there's a lot of mystery about what exactly goes on in SCDC." 

Bailey and Bamberg are both calling for a wide-ranging, independent investigation.

"I think that the state DOC here would benefit from a [U.S. Department of Justice] review," Bamberg said. "To have someone independent, not necessarily tied to the state look at the prison system and say...where can we improve, and what absolutely has to change right now. I would welcome that, and I think most people here would welcome that."