SC prisons agency reaches $6M settlement 3 years after deadly Lee prison riot

This article originally appeared in The Post and Courier.

By Seanna Adcox

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s prisons agency has reached a $6 million settlement resolving dozens of lawsuits stemming from America’s deadliest prison riot in a generation that left seven dead and many more wounded.

Agency officials will seek approval of the deal June 29 from a state fiscal oversight board, according to an agenda posted online.

The settlement will wrap up 81 lawsuits filed on behalf of inmates in state and federal court, according to the brief explanation in paperwork submitted for the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.

The Corrections Department provided no further information ahead of the meeting.

The agency is “asking permission to move forward with a settlement in the Lee riot cases,” said spokeswoman Chrysti Shain.

The deal comes more than three years after the riot at Lee Correctional Institution in rural Bishopville left seven inmates dead and dozens injured. Many of the lawsuits argued prison officials failed to keep prisoners safe.

“We’re excited about the possibility of moving further toward a settlement,” said attorney Bakari Sellers, who represents several families. “The state has worked diligently to put this matter behind them.”

As for the details, he responded: “At the end of the day, we still have to dot some ‘i’s and cross some ‘t’s, but we feel like a dark chapter in the Department of Corrections’ history will finally be closed.”

The April 2018 violence erupted after 24-year-old Damonte Rivera went into the unlocked cell of Michael Milledge, a well-liked 44-year-old prisoner, and stabbed him to death. Blood gang members then retaliated against Rivera, killing him and attacking members of his gang, authorities said.

The violence then spread through their dorm and into two neighboring housing units as gang members exacted retribution. Authorities blamed cellphones for allowing inmates in those dorms to communicate with one another and spread the violence.

The seven inmates slain ranged in age from 24 to 44. Some were new to the prison; others had been housed there for years. Their crimes included domestic violence, drug possession and murder.

The other inmates who died were Eddie Gaskins, 32; Joshua Jenkins, 33; Cornelius McClary, 33; Raymond Scott, 28; and Corey Scott, 38.

Twenty-nine men were indicted last December on 79 charges ranging from assault by mob to murder. None of those cases has gone to trial.

Three men are accused of murder in connection with Rivera’s death. That charge carries penalties of 30 years to life or potentially the death penalty.

Murder charges were not filed in the other killings. However, 18 inmates were charged with first-degree assault and battery by a mob resulting in death, which carries a minimum 30-year sentence.

In 2019, The Post and Courier detailed how the brutality at Lee exploded between gangs after Milledge’s killing. Reporters collected thousands of pages of records, interviewed experts and prison staff, and communicated with more than 100 inmates who either witnessed the violence or were touched by it. The coverage won several national awards.

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