A hyperviolent facility where gang members roam free and attacks happen in the all-too-often absence of corrections officers — that’s how lawyers describe McCormick’s prison in lawsuits filed on behalf of 13 current and former inmates.
These suits, all filed in McCormick County by Georgetown-based Bell Legal Group, come after the maximum-security prison saw two fatal stabbings and an escape in late 2016.
The state’s prison system has received national attention after a series of violent events that include a riot earlier this month that left seven dead at Lee Correctional in Bishopville, which is the nation’s deadliest prison riot in 25 years, and the killing of four inmates on April 7, 2017 at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia.
State leaders blame the system’s problems on a high rate of vacancies and low pay. At one point, about half of the correctional officer positions at McCormick Correctional were open. Last Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order that broadly increases hiring and procurement powers for the state Department of Corrections in an attempt to alleviate some of the understaffing issues.
The order allows for “on-the-spot hiring” of security personnel, clears the way for overtime pay, the creation of new job incentives, salary increases and exemptions to job posting announcements.
Two of the filings representing 11 of the inmates paint a picture of a prison run amok. Lawyers write that the state Department of Corrections “has a long history of violence among inmates,” with a “complete failure" by the department to “keep weapons out of the hands of inmates housed at McCormick Correctional Institution.” At McCormick Correctional and other state prisons, the filings said, “gangs are allowed to run free and commit whatever crimes they want” and those inmates who don’t follow the rules or break laws seldom face consequences.
The complaints also describe it as “common practice” for correctional officers to “leave doors unlocked when they should be locked” and to “leave their posts without being relieved by another correctional officer,” which the suits allege is “facilitating fights and stabbings.” The filings note that these violate the department’s policies and procedures.
Jeff Taillon, state Department of Corrections spokesman, did not respond to an email sent Thursday seeking comment about these characterizations.
Just one of the 13 attacks at McCormick Correctional described in the suits happened while an SCDC employee was present — and that correctional officer was the first to be assailed.
On Oct. 4 — the same day inmates climbed to the roof of a prison dorm, and a few days after a water main break put McCormick Correctional under a boil water notice — an inmate being escorted by an officer managed to get out of his handcuffs and put a knife to the officer’s throat, one of the filings said. That inmate then took the officer’s keys and began opening doors.
The inmate then went into the cell of Alvin Davis and Kenneth Huckabee, the complaint said, where he took Huckabee hostage and someone held a knife to Davis’ throat while he kneeled on the floor.
Davis was one of seven plaintiffs listed on the latest lawsuit, which was filed March 19.
In audio from a 911 call the Index-Journal obtained in October, a woman reported that seven inmates or so were on the roof of a dorm and that inmates had started a fire at the facility. The department denied that a fire was set.
Once officers got control of the unit back, the lawyers wrote, they placed it on lockdown and no one got food or medicine for about 2 1/2 days — which nearly caused Davis to go into a diabetic coma.
Two days after inmates climbed on the roof, inmates again seized control of one of the prison’s wings.
One of the filings alleges that eight inmates went into the cell of Johnell Richardson and Delronezy Washington and, after the pair refused to hand over their television, the other inmates began stabbing them. Richardson and Washington are among Davis’ co-plaintiffs.
The inmates left “because they were taking over the wing,” the document said, so Richardson and Washington “barricaded themselves in their room” until correctional officers retook the wing using tear gas.
The day it happened, Taillon told the Index-Journal there was an inmate-on-inmate fight. He said that “two will receive medical attention at the facility, one will receive outside medical attention.”
It was unclear whether Washington and Richardson were the two inmates he said would be treated in house.
Despite requesting help, Washington received no medical care and Richardson wasn’t treated until a week later, the filing said.
Violence at other prisons
While the lawsuits focus on events at McCormick Correctional, they also describe two attacks that happened at other prisons.
In one filing, lawyers said Jamarcus Murray was attacked during a riot at Broad River Correctional days before coming to McCormick. That document doesn’t detail what happened at Broad River, but a separate lawsuit filed in Richland County on behalf of Murray and eight other inmates describes an attack that unfolded April 4, 2016.
A correctional officer had unlocked the doors between two wings, allowing 15-20 inmates to pass from one side to the other, then went to a separate room. Some of those inmates had weapons and wore masks, the complaint said, all within view of the officer.
After the attack started, the officer came into the wing, locked the door, then locked himself in a closet, according to the filing. He came out of the closet when first responders arrived and ran out of the wing, then locked the door back.
Meanwhile, the complaint said, inmates were attacked with “knives, machetes, wooden sticks, and metal poles.” During the attack, Murray was stabbed in the shoulder.
The other lawsuit said he was told he would be moved to Perry Correctional Institution and put in lockup for his protection, but instead was moved to McCormick Correctional and put in general population.
He arrived between 8 and 9 p.m. April 15, 2016. The complaint said the following morning — and just 12 days after the Broad River attack — he was walking to breakfast when someone came up behind him, threw a jacket over him and dragged him into a room where he was stabbed in the head, chest and under his armpit.
After the attack, while an inmate was helping him “correctional officers could see him bleeding but looked down, and kept walking away from him,” the filing said.
A complaint filed on behalf of inmate Oswald O’Neal describes how the now-36-year-old was stabbed 17 times during a riot in May 2014 at Lee Correctional. An inmate search detail report shows he was transferred from Lee to “Outside Medical” on May 12, 2014.
When O’Neal learned he was being transferred to the McCormick prison in April 2015, his lawyer wrote, he told officials he “couldn’t go to McCormick because some of the people who stabbed him were there.”
Correctional officers told him he could take up the issue with prison officials in McCormick. After the transfer, the warden told him there was nothing he could do.
On May 16, 2015 — 31 days after the transfer — someone attacked him from behind with a pipe, breaking two of his teeth and leaving him with bruises on his head.
A response filed by the Department of Corrections’ attorney said the department “lack(s) sufficient information” on O’Neal’s transfer concerns and about the Lee Correctional attack while acknowledging that he was attacked with a pipe at McCormick. No response has been filed to the complaints filed on Murray’s behalf.
Fights over ‘territory,’
In the wake of the Lee prison riot that started April 14 and left seven prisoners dead and 22 injured, the head of the state’s prison system said at a press conference that inmates “are fighting over real money and real territory while they’re incarcerated.”
The McCormick lawsuits do not dwell into whether turf wars played a role in any of the 13 attacks they document, but three are portrayed as attempted armed robberies. In addition to the men who were attacked over a TV, two other inmates reported being accosted over property.
Two inmates with knives demanded Kaseem Stephens hand over his cellphone, one complaint said, then attacked him when he said he didn’t have one. The Nov. 19, 2015 stabbing severed his spine, leaving him partially paralyzed, and also severed his ear. The 40-year-old is now at Lee Correctional and, as of the Nov. 7, 2017 filing, was still recovering from the attack.
On Jan. 18, another document said, two inmates demanded that Jason Lamar Storms first hand over his property, then sought $500 in cash. When he refused, they began hitting him and he was stabbed with a bowie-style knife. The 39-year-old, who’s now housed at Ridgeland, received stitches.
While several hundred inmates were transferred from McCormick to Lee last year, Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections, said he was skeptical that the moves led to the violence.
Instead, Stirling placed much of the blame for Lee’s riots on cellphones. Officers lost control of three separate dorms in a short span — and with inmates having little ability to communicate with those in other dorms besides by phone, Stirling says they were likely used in growing the riot beyond the first dorm. He is asking federal officials to allow the prisons to block cell signal inside the state’s prisons.