COLUMBIA — The Lee County prison where a guard was taken hostage Thursday night has also been the site of several other similar incidents over the past decade. On Thursday, the prison went on lockdown for the second time in just over three months.
Although prison officials say violence comes with the territory, the string of incidents has some senators worried.
Lee Correctional Institute, the state’s largest maximum-security prison, went on lockdown Thursday when prisoners took a correctional officer hostage using shivs – homemade knives – at about 5 p.m. in the Chesterfield Dorm, which houses the general population inmates.
The situation, which Corrections Department spokesman Clark Newsom said was sparked by opportunity, turned into a nearly five-hour standoff between the 120 Chesterfield inmates and the Corrections Department’s rapid response teams, State Law Enforcement Division agents and Lee County deputies.
The situation was only diffused with the help of inmates calling law officers with contraband cellphones. The inmates led the agents to the correctional officer, who was stowed in one of the dormitory’s broom closets. He walked away with minor injuries.
Lee Correctional may be the site of recent disruptions in the state’s prison system, but Newsom said it doesn’t mean there is a problem at the state’s largest maximum security penitentiary. The institution deals with some of the state’s worst violent criminals, gang members and repeat offenders serving up to life sentences, and there are going to be more incidents there.
“It’s part of the business,” he said. “We’re dealing with very dangerous criminals there.”
Newsom said Lee’s problems can be seen in other South Carolina prisons and in institutions in other states.
Two hostages were taken at Leiber Correctional Institution outside of Charleston in January, he said, and prisons across the nation have been fighting to keep contraband out of their institutions. More than 3,600 cellphones have been confiscated from the state’s 27 prisons this year alone, Newsom said.
Still, Newsom said the Corrections Department will react to the incidents at Lee. Thursday’s hostage situation is still under investigation, but Newsom said the inmates responsible in similar incidents typically lose privileges, spend time in lockdown or might be relocated to another one of the prison system’s four other maximum-security facilities serving men. Criminal charges also could be filed in the kidnapping. And correctional officers also will perform a prison-wide sweep, confiscating cell phones, weapons, tobacco, drugs and other contraband from the inmates.
Deputies have been running patrols around the prison for more than a year, Lee County Sheriff Danny Simon said. After the spate of contraband arrests the department made in late 2011, officials have seen fewer people trying to toss packages over the prison fence, Simon said.
He said administration at the prison has been doing a good job, and he’s surprised his deputies aren’t called out to Lee Correctional more often, considering the kind of criminal who calls the facility home.
“It’s not church folks housed there,” Simon said. “I’m surprised they don’t have more incidents there.”
But the recent incidents at Lee have some state senators who sit on the committee that oversees the Corrections Department concerned. Sen. Michael Fair, R-Greenville, the chairman of the Corrections and Penology Committee has set up a meeting with Corrections Department officials to talk about the prison.
Fair said he didn’t have any reason to believe that there are problems at the prison, but the incidents are cause for concern at a 1,100-inmate facility where guards do not carry weapons.
“You always have to be concerned about the safety of the guards as well as the inmates,” he said.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, also sits on the committee and is similarly concerned about what is happening at Lee Correctional.
He said it may be just coincidence that the prison has experienced standoffs between inmates and law enforcement over the years, but it merits questions.
Massey said the committee needs to look at what lawmakers can do legislatively to keep another hostage from being taken at the prison and why there aren’t more incidents at other prisons in the state if the problems Lee faces are system-wide.
“If we have system-wide problems, you’d think you’d see them manifest themselves at other prisons,” Massey said.