Lee Correctional Institution
© AP
Lee Correctional Institution
Nearly eight hours of rioting at a maximum-security South Carolina prison left at least seven inmates dead and 17 others injured, authorities said.

State officials defended their response to the prison brawl - one of the deadliest in America's recent history - amid allegations that officers did little to curb the violence early on and did not render aid as quickly as they could have.

Fighting began at one of the housing units at Lee Correctional Institution, as detention officers were conducting a nightly check-in, state corrections director Bryan Stirling said at a news conference today.

Two more fights erupted at two other housing units at Lee Correctional as well, he said.

The fighting triggered a standard response in which guards at each of the dorms left the housing units and called for backup, Stirling said. "They're outnumbered, so they're trained to back out of that dorm and call for support," Stirling said. "And that's what we believe they did last night because support arrived immediately."
Killed guys
© AP
Deceased: Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, Joshua Jenkins

According to Stirling, backup teams from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) entered the first housing unit to "take that dorm back." They did the same for the second and third dorms, he said.

The prison was secured at 2.55 am local time, and no officers or staff members were harmed, officials said. SLED spokesman Thom Berry said an investigation was underway "to determine what caused the disturbance."

Stirling said that they believed that word of the fight spread from the first dorm to the others through contraband cellphones.

"This was all about territory. This was about contraband. This was about cellphones," Stirling said. "These folks are fighting over real money and real territory when they are incarcerated."

The corrections department identified the seven dead inmates as Raymond Angelo Scott, Michael Milledge, Damonte Marquez Rivera, Eddie Casey Jay Gaskins, Joshua Svwin Jenkins, Corey Scott and Cornelius Quantral McClary.

The Lee County coroner told AP that most of the dead appeared to have been killed by stabbing or slashing.

Emergency crews from at least a half-dozen agencies responded to the "mass casualty incident," according to Lee County Fire and Rescue.

Lee Correctional Institution is one of South Carolina's highest-security prisons, which means the inmates are generally tightly monitored and their movements inside the facility are limited.

Of South Carolina's nine all-male, maximum-security prisons, Lee Correctional - in Bishopville, about 95km northeast of Columbia - is the largest. The prison houses about 1600 male inmates, the majority of them in general housing rather than more restricted housing, according to state records.

Violence at Lee Correctional is not uncommon. During the past year, at least three inmates were killed in separate incidents, while last month, inmates held an officer hostage for about an hour-and-a-half before releasing him, according to the State newspaper.

An investigation by the State's John Monk found that the number of inmates killed across the state's prisons had quadrupled from three inmates in 2015 to 12 inmates in 2017.

Stirling told Monk that the trend can be partly attributed to an increase in inmates obtaining cellphones, chronic understaffing, gang rivalries and a higher ratio of violent prisoners to nonviolent ones.