The deadliest incident of violence in a United States prison in a quarter century took place at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina on April 15, 2018.
According to multiple reports, including SCDC Director Bryan Stirling’s own, prison guards and EMTs made no attempt to break things up or lend medical aid from the moment the fight commenced until hours after it was over, while imprisoned people were beaten and stabbed to death. Seven people were killed and dozens were injured, with at least twenty two requiring hospitalization.
On April 22, I interviewed three individuals from various prisons inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections. One of the prisoners identified himself as a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of imprisoned human rights advocates that has made national calls to action for a prisoner-led strike in response to the conditions they feel are truly responsible for the violence and hopelessness within prisons across the United States. The strike is expected to begin on August 21st, 2018.
Throughout our conversation, these three individuals, who are identified only as D, S, and E to protect their identities and prevent retaliation by prison officials, highlight the impacts of policies pushed by President Bill Clinton’s administration and implemented by states across the country. They also point to the dehumanization of prisoners and challenge our conception of “gangs,” which does not take into account the ways in which incarcerated people are forced to create their own collective means for safety, survival, and camaraderie in a situation where hope is the scarcest commodity.
They also urge the public to reconsider the nature and source of violence within prisons and the absence of human dignity and a rehabilitative environment within our nation’s prisons. They present actionable solutions to mitigate some of the harm caused by prisons on our ultimate path toward shedding carceral responses to legitimate societal needs.
As I write this introduction on May 2nd, 2018, South Carolina prisoners have confirmed that all Level 2 and 3 facilities have remained on a statewide lockdown since April 15th. This means people imprisoned in facilities have been denied any freedom of movement, regular access to showers, recreation, or meals outside the confines of their cells.
We grant permission for individuals and news organizations to republish this interview in its entirety for their audiences. It is imperative that we deepen conversations around the causes of violence in prisons and the real impacts of incarceration on all people, inside and outside the walls.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jared: Firstly, for context for folks who are reading this, there have been a lot of things that have gone down in South Carolina prisons over the last year or two, if you guys could lay down some of that context for people, because I think a lot of people don’t understand some of the things that prisoners throughout South Carolina have been dealing with and how those conditions might contribute to prisoners really feeling a sense of hopelessness?
D: I’m going to take you back a little step here, to 1996 at least. I’ll cover it a little bit, and I’ll be as brief as possible. Prior to Bill Clinton’s Prison Litigation Reform Act, anti-terrorism act, these acts that went into full effect in 1996, initiated what is known as the 85% or Truth In Sentencing1 throughout most of the states inside this nation today. It’s not just necessarily something that incubated inside the South Carolina, it was actually national. There was a domino effect, okay? But in 1996, specifically, the reason why I’m pinpointing that is because, at that particular point in the state of South Carolina, there was no such thing as a natural life sentence in the department of corrections. There was no such thing as a forever-type sentence, where individuals thought that they weren’t going to be able to get out.
Even if you had a violent offense or a labeled-violent offense, you still had something known as a work release date. You still would have some type of eligibility to go to work release, and that also meant the eligibility to go to work at some place on the street or go home even on the weekends in the state of South Carolina. They had opportunity to make state pay during that particular time period. Even when you [were] at what was known as the max yard. These yards [were] clearly open, everybody could roam and move around free.
But when 1996 set in, and you had this mindset that started to kick in, that was known, as Hillary Clinton called [it], as locking down these “super-predators.” They called it also the War on Drugs, which I call the war on the Black and Brown community. All these things is playing into effect at that particular time period, and that created the environment inside.
We found fences starting to be wrapped into the prisons, we found prisoners that was labeled as violent offenders, was sent into these fences and caged into buildings all day. We found that the food started deteriorating, we saw the clothes removed, and we saw the ways that [imprisoned people] could make money removed out of the system. There was no longer any type of state pay. Even though state pay was very minimal, it was still an opportunity to buy a bar of soap or a Honey Bun or something like that. We saw that visitation was being restricted.
It was just a host of things that started being incubated. And then the hopelessness set in. Because what happened then is we started having these life sentences coming through under 85 percent, where prisoners knew they were never going to see daylight again. We started having what we call “football numbers:” 80, 100, 150 years coming through 85 percent [time served, where prisoners knew they were] never going to see daylight again.
So this is where actually a lot of the problems started accumulating. And not only that, but actually education was removed by the prison system. Any type of Pell Grants, all that was gone. Education, technical colleges, everything was removed. So that’s a little bit of a picture of what kind of started to shape the environment back here.
Jared: Thank you, so that changed obviously the overall conditions of how prisons across the country changed and sort of the hopelessness that set in. Can you talk to me a little bit though of some of the specific things that happened in South Carolina over the last couple of years?
D: And this is when the most sadistic mindsets start to set in. Prisoncrats… And I’m going to [let] the brother answer that one.
S: So for one, as the brother was just telling you with the “football numbers,” prisoners got a lot of time to serve, but actually with nothing to do. When they took away all the privileges, they took away a lot of the programs. Stuff like that, it leads to just standing around with nothing to do, except to indulge in negative behavior, and reactionary behavior, and just all different forms of escapism–whatever they can do to pass the time.
They drug test you so they can take away your privileges. Why do they need drug testing inside the prisons? People are already in here doing time, it’s irrelevant. I can see if somebody’s getting ready to go home for parole or something like that and you’re going to test them, but just to constantly test them, that’s kind of like a waste of money. They always waste their funds on things they don’t need to waste their funds on.
We have no means of supporting ourselves because there’s no state pay. Because we have no state pay, we have no way to eat. As the brother said, even though it was just a little bit of money, but it still was something. You still could buy some hygiene [products].
When they do lockdown, they’re supposed to give you showers Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, whatever the lockdown be for. But they don’t ever honor it. They want to do one cell at a time, and it’ll take you a whole week before you get a shower. You have some prisons where the water system is messed up. Particularly at Lieber [Correctional Institute], their water system has been messed up forever. When you flush the toilet or pour your water, it smells like rotten eggs. They say it has sulfur in it or whatever, but it eats up the actual metal, and causes mold and stuff to be all over the prison. If they were to go do a tour through that prison right now, and they go all the way from the lock-up to the yard, the ceiling is falling in, metal hanging down, it’s dripping all over the place, mold is all over the place, people who are in prison for 15-20 years are dying from cancer. But they don’t have no cigarettes inside, you feel me?
We’re confined to a cell a lot. They do a lot of counts and the counts always last for a long period of time. The purpose of counting is to make sure that we’re here. In all reality, they should just count us and then let us back out for recreation. If you count from the time you eat dinner on a Friday night to your next meal on a Saturday, it’s 17-18 hours before you get your next meal. And on the daily basis, you’re talking about 12 to 13 hours from when you get your first meal to your next meal, that’s almost like a half a day, that’s a long time.
So you eat up all your [food purchased from the] canteen, which forces you to go the canteen and spend a lot of money on a bunch of a junk that they price gouge, that’s super high, but this money is coming from their family members who are out there working hard to help support you as well.
D: One of the things that has not fully been addressed in South Carolina is the nature and culture of disrespect from the officers inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections, as well. They have completely in my eyes mastered the art of dehumanizing prisoners. Once again, we have to keep in mind they intentionally went into an overdrive of taking the prisoners clothes. Not only taking the prisoners clothes, cutting the prisoners hair the same way, had it to where you can’t have your money in your pocket, just a number of things to take away your individuality. And in the process of taking away your individuality, they begin to treat you as if you were garbage. What I mean by treat you as garbage, just by dehumanizing us it makes it easier for them to abuse us, and this abuse a lot of times takes place as physical abuse.
We had in the Super Max Units out in Columbia, South Carolina maybe about a year or two ago, guards bumrush a prisoner inside his cell, stab him up. We’ve always had a number of incidents with regards to them cuffing prisoners, then cut prisoners up, slamming prisoners on their heads. In some cases, we’ve had some mysterious deaths, some hangings that prisoners are clearly not comfortable with labeling them as hangings on these maximum security prisons.
We’ve also had incidents where prisoners when he speaks of recreation, understand something about this recreation a lot of places and a lot of areas right now, prisoners are no longer getting rec at all. It’s like every blue moon before we even see any sunlight or daylight to be able to get rec. What we are finding is that, that itself is causing a lot of attitude problems. A lot of aggressiveness.
From SC Prison in the cells at HIGH NOON. Blocking out natural light & long lockdowns have prisoners in SC exhibiting aggressive behavior and depression. Prisoners without a working light switch 24 hrs dark. Expect major rebellions to come from this darkness pic.twitter.com/EzzusZPKpN
— Prison Slavery #August21 (@SlaveryPrison) April 26, 2018
When we talk about the food, we don’t get any fruit, no real fruit anyway. At one time they actually had salad bars; they removed all of that over two decades ago. Now you get nothing. Some of the food is labeled “not for human consumption.” So these are normal things that we are actually dealing with inside the prison system.
For visitation, there’s no contact with your visitor, with your loved ones. One kiss in, one kiss out. Rather than a hug, sit down, embrace each other. Be in the comfort of each other’s company. We’re finding that is moving further and further away, and I’m very fearful that we’re moving to the stage of video visits very soon, in the very near future.
Jared: Talk a little bit about the angle of this around technology. Bryan Stirling has been for at least a year now, probably more, he’s been on this kick about getting cell phones out. You know there was this sort of fairly high profile escape less than a year ago, and they blamed cell phones for that. And they’re also blaming this riot on cell phones. They’re talking about phone jammers. So just talk a little bit about cell phones in relation to the prisons and what they mean or provide to prisoners and how realistic some of these narratives or fears that are being stated by SCDC are.
S: SCDC’s main reason for not wanting the phones inside the prison system is because the phones got camera access, video access, and the phones can expose the things that they do. When they’re using extreme force – the same way people are using cell phones out on the street when they’re catching certain things that cops aren’t supposed to be doing and stuff like that – see they can be exposed, they can’t hide when we’ve got the phones.
The prisoners utilize the phones to communicate with their family members. The phone system that [SCDC has], the phone prices are entirely too high, nobody would use that. They get money off it, too, and everybody knows that. And prisoners use the phone as a means of staying connected to their families, fathers staying connected to their children. Some fathers back here are raising their children from prison by staying in contact with them.
So SCDC just wants the phones out of the prisons because they don’t want to be exposed. They don’t want the videos of the fights and stabbings to be shown. There’s other things prisoners are shooting videos of. They’re showing videos of the brown water, they show videos of the mold inside the buildings. They show videos of the prisoners who’ve been dead in the bed for two hours and the guard ain’t come and check on the man yet. So it’s a fly on the wall for them, that’s why they don’t want them in here.
Jared: I’ve heard some reporting on how high the death numbers are from South Carolina over the past couple years, but I’ve also heard from some prisoners that they believe the death numbers are actually much higher than what’s being reported. For example, I’ve had a prisoner tell me that, even though SCDC is officially stating death toll numbers in the teens over the last year, and these numbers are very high based on national averages, that the numbers are actually higher but they believe SCDC is only reporting certain kinds of deaths.
S: Yeah they are only reporting certain kinds of deaths, not including some deaths that they have caused themselves. And just to give you an example, they have a cell in the area they call the RHU (Restrictive Housing Unit) that’s supposed to be the area they put people that get in trouble or whatever. And they’ve got a cell that’s called a CI (Crisis Intervention) cell. That’s where they strip you, make you get butt naked you got no clothes on, no nothing, and when they do bring you something, they’ll bring you a suicide blanket only.
So you had a guy years ago, where he said he was going to kill himself, so they put him in the CI, so the guy told one of the Lieutenants later on that night he was cool. The Lieutenant gave the man a sheet and then they say the man hanged himself. That’s what they said. But by policy and by rule, nobody is supposed to have [any] sheets in [any] CI cell and everybody know that, especially the Lieutenant, who’s a supervisor. So that’s their fault. He was a mentally ill patient. That’s on them. So of course you know when they write it up, or they give the information to the public or his family, they [aren’t telling those] people that.
Each month SC prisoners witness hundreds of new officers come to work at prisons and within a month never return horrified at what they see
— SCCondemnVoices (@SCconvict9999) May 2, 2018
D: Absolutely. I’d like to add to that as well. One of the reasons why the number is probably higher as well is they’re dealing with medical neglect. So I’ll give you an example. I saw a guy that fell out of his seat. And the guard looked over the guy, but the prisoner was the only one that responded and started to give the guy mouth to mouth resuscitation. Well, come to find out the guy who was giving him resuscitation, his face started turning blue. Five minutes later the nurse arrives, and they lean over and they tell the guy and tell the officer they’d been giving mouth-to-mouth the wrong way. I honestly sat there and saw them kill this man for that particular incident.
And we’ve also seen incidents where guys fall out, no medical treatment whatsoever. I consider those direct murders, as well, of the state. When staff are failing to respond or respond and say, “Oh, you’re faking it, you’re not having a heart attack,” and you fall out and die right there. We saw that happen several times as well. So this also would account for why some of the prisoners would say that these numbers definitely would be higher, after they are witnessing some people being allowed to die, the way that they’re being allowed to die.
Citizens speak of justice and stopping #AnimalCruelty. They have millions of supporters and $$ donated for this cause. We don't need your $$, we only want your voices. Demand prisoners be treated humanely. Help stop humans in prisons from dying unnecessarily pic.twitter.com/g9Nf3Xx4fe
— Prison Slavery #August21 (@SlaveryPrison) April 30, 2018
Find part two of this interview here.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated with additional sources regarding cell phones, death statistics, and state pay. An earlier citation concerning Jailhouse Lawyers Speak has been removed, as it could not be verified.
1Truth In Sentencing Laws were part of a national movement in the mid-nineties to end parole and increase the length of prison sentences, as well as ensuring that offenders for certain offenses served at least 85% of their sentences. Although it was a national movement, here are some details about South Carolina’s laws: http://www.ncrp.info/StateFactSheets.aspx?state=SC