Four plead guilty to charges stemming from deadly 2018 S.C. prison riot, with more expected

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Published: Jul. 20, 2023 at 9:07 PM EDT
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SUMTER, S.C. (WIS) - Five years ago, the largest prison riot in South Carolina history and the deadliest in the country in more than two decades left seven inmates dead and dozens injured.

More than 40 current and former South Carolina inmates face charges in connection with the deadly 2018 riot at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, and on Thursday, the first group of them pleaded guilty at the Sumter County Judicial Center.

“It’s the start of the finality,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said.

The riot broke out the night of April 15, 2018, starting as a fight between rival gang members housed in the then-maximum-security prison. It spread into different cell blocks from there, as inmates communicated with each other using contraband cellphones, according to law enforcement.

It took several hours to subdue the riot, and in the end, seven inmates were dead, and many more hurt.

Initial charges were filed after more than two years of investigation in 2020, and more were added in the years since.

“The amount of evidence in the case — I’ve done this 42 years, and it’s one of the more complicated cases I’ve dealt with,” Barney Giese, special prosecutor for the Third Circuit Solicitor’s Office, told reporters.

In proceedings that lasted about an hour Thursday morning, four men pleaded guilty for their roles in the violence.

Three of them — Rahim Carter, Tyrone Lewis, and Arsenio Colclough — pleaded guilty to possession of contraband, and the fourth, Mike Smalls, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and second-degree assault and battery by mob.

Circuit Court Judge R. Ferrell Cothran gave Carter and Lewis, who are both still incarcerated, time that will run concurrently with their previous sentences.

Colclough, who has since been released from Department of Corrections custody but is now in the Sumter County Detention Center on unrelated charges, received time equal to what he is credited with already serving.

Smalls, also still in prison and pleading guilty to the most serious charges of the group, received additional time behind bars for his second-degree assault and battery by mob plea. As part of that, Smalls could also face the rest of his life in prison without parole if he commits another violent crime.

“We just want to make sure justice is done,” Giese said. “Sometimes that takes three months, 10 months. Sometimes it takes almost five to 10 years, but that’s what it’s aiming for.”

Prosecutors in court that they believe Smalls was part of a group that stabbed an inmate to death around 100 times, while attorneys for the other three inmates who pleaded Thursday argued their clients had weapons as protection but did not use them or even tried to quell the violence.

Carter had already been sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison, and that could be the case for more inmates charged for playing a role in the riot.

“This is important so folks know that they’re going to be held accountable for their actions, regardless of where they are in the system,” Stirling told reporters. “It’s important for the victims in this case, the people that are left behind to see that justice has been served for their loved ones. Even though they were incarcerated, they do deserve justice.”

More guilty pleas are still to come, according to prosecutors, and possibly a trial.

A few inmates are still facing murder charges from the riot.

Giese said they did look at seeking the death penalty for those inmates, but that none of them fit the criteria.

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