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South Carolina's deadly prison riot wasn't inevitable — policymakers share the blame

The violence at Lee Correctional provides an important cautionary tale when discussing the push to scale back mass incarceration.
Image: Lee Correctional Institution
The Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, where seven inmates were killed and almost 20 more were injured.Logan Cyrus / AFP - Getty Images

On April 15, violence broke out among people incarcerated in several housing units at the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina. By the time prison officials re-entered the units three hours later, seven inmates had been killed and at least 17 more were injured. It was one of the worst instances of prison violence in recent years, and perhaps the worst in modern South Carolina history.

Lethal violence is all too common in prisons in South Carolina. In 2017, there were 12 inmate-on-inmate homicides in South Carolina prisons. Given that the state holds about 20,000 people in prison, that translates to a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 inmates — as high as the deadliest city in the U.S., and nearly 12 times the national average homicide rate of about 5 per 100,000 people.

For comparison, between 2001 and 2014, approximately 60 prisoners were killed nationwide each year in state prisons — and that includes deaths that were “incidental to staff use of force” and deaths caused by injuries sustained before coming to prison. So while South Carolina holds about one percent of the 1.4 million people behind bars in state prisons nationwide, its 12 inmate homicides in 2017 accounted for something on the order of 20 percent of all prison homicide deaths. Prisons in the United States are, in general, unpleasant places, but South Carolina’s are deadly to an unprecedented degree.

The day after the outbreak of violence at Lee, the governor of South Carolina, Henry McMaster, attempted to blame those in prison for the violence, saying that “It’s not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside prison.”

Lee is a maximum-security facility, which in theory holds more-aggressive people. The governor’s take, however, is incorrect. The violence at Lee was not the inevitable result of confining people convicted of serious offenses with each other. It was the result of policy choices that created an environment that allowed, even encouraged, violence to erupt.

Although the state is often held up as a criminal justice success story after a 2010 sentencing law reversed decades of rising incarceration rates, its system has faced legal challenges for years over how it is run. Only a few states spend less per prisoner than South Carolina, and while the national inmates-per-officer ratio is on the order of five to one (at least according to data from 2005, the most recent data we have), at Lee on the night of the violence the ratio was much, much higher. Initial reports said there two guards per housing block, with 250 men in each block. Later reports suggested that there may have been four guards per block, not two, but that wouldn’t really paint a better picture either: 63 to one is still an unacceptable ratio.

What is clear is that South Carolina’s prisons are underfunded and understaffed — about 30 percent of all positions are vacant, and low pay and low morale have made it hard to retain corrections officers. The facilities are poorly maintained, and programming is inadequate for the size of the prison population. All these factors are policy choices driven by budgeting, and all of them contribute to prison violence.

Prisons need not be like this. Facilities in countries like Germany look almost nothing like prisons in the U.S., even though they often detain people convicted of serious violent crimes. The institutions are well-maintained, and correctional officials — who view their jobs more as social work than law enforcement — are well-paid and well-trained. While most correctional officers in the U.S. receive, at most, three months of training before being sent into a prison, in Germany the minimum is two years. Treated in a less adversarial manner in more humane settings, those held in European prisons tend to respond accordingly.

Facilities in countries like Germany look almost nothing like prisons in the U.S., even though they often detain people convicted of serious violent crimes.

In other words, when Governor McMaster shrugged his shoulders at the “inevitable” violence of prisons, he was dodging the question of why that violence arises. To him, clearly, those in prison cannot help but be violent — a bleak and ultimately dehumanizing perspective, and one that is deeply flawed. The conditions in which we confine people shape how much stress and fear and pressure they face, which in turn influences the risk of violence. Even if those in prison are more likely to engage in violence than the average person, the lethality of South Carolina’s prisons — and the violence in U.S. prisons more broadly — is very much the product of how South Carolina and the rest of the country choose to manage and fund them.

As a result, South Carolina provides an important cautionary tale to a major theme that runs through the push to scale back mass incarceration. Proponents of decarceration often point to how prison reduction can save money — money that can then be spent on programs that work better. To be clear, prison is a terrible way to reduce crime, and much of the approximately $50 billion states spend maintaining their prisons should be spent elsewhere.

The conditions in which we confine people shape how much stress and fear and pressure they face, which in turn influences the risk of violence.

But prison spending must be cut carefully. As the violence last weekend demonstrates, underfunded prisons are unmanageable prisons, which make life miserable for those in them and for their families, if not lethally dangerous. And the worse the trauma experienced by people confined in such facilities, the more difficult re-entry becomes and the greater the risk of reoffending.

In other words, the events at the Lee Correctional Institution are far less a reflection of the people who are confined there than they are of how the state chooses to fund and manage it prisons — and thus of how the state values the lives of those confined within them.

John Pfaff is a professor of law at the Fordham University School of Law. He is the author of "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform."