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The Worst Prisons in South Carolina

South Carolina has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States, with over 20,000 people imprisoned in the state as of 2022. While all prisons come with their challenges, some correctional facilities in South Carolina have developed notoriously poor reputations over the years.

Factors like overcrowding, gang violence, lack of resources, poor living conditions and high staff turnover rates can quickly lead to a prison gaining a bad reputation. It takes strong leadership and reform to improve these environments.

Here is an overview of some of the worst prisons in South Carolina based on factors like safety, security, recidivism rates and prisoner resources.

Lee Correctional Institution

Lee Correctional Institution is a high-security level men’s prison located in Bishopville, SC. With a capacity for 1,462 prisoners, this facility has faced chronic issues with violence, crowding and lack of control.

In 2018, Lee experienced one of the deadliest prison riots in the past 25 years. The clash left 7 inmates dead and 22 seriously injured. Most of the fatalities were due to stabbing or slashing injuries from homemade knives.

While the catalyst for the riot is still under investigation, it highlighted how tensions at overcrowded, understaffed prisons can quickly boil over. It also showcased the power struggles between gangs inside Lee Correctional.

Besides violence, the prison has also faced criticism for its poor living conditions, lack of programming for inmates and staffing shortages. These systemic problems have contributed to Lee Correctional remaining a dangerous environment with limited rehabilitation opportunities.

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Perry Correctional Institution

Another high-security correctional facility plagued by violence is Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer, SC. With around 900 prisoners, this institution has developed a reputation for disorder and inmate-on-inmate assaults.

In 2021, one of the most violent incidents occurred when a convicted murderer beat his cellmate to death. The victim was strangled, stabbed multiple times and left covered in feces.

An internal investigation revealed negligence among the staff at Perry for failing to separate the unstable, high-risk inmates. However, chronic understaffing has impacted their ability to properly supervise prisoner interactions.

Along with violence, Perry has also faced lawsuits over the spreading of illegal drugs among inmates. Back in 2019, a major bust revealed how cell phones, heroin, meth and other substances were being smuggled inside the prison walls.

These factors illustrate how Perry Correctional Institution has struggled to establish order and safety despite its high-security designation. Meaningful reforms will be needed to improve living conditions, decrease contraband and reduce inmate-on-inmate violence.

McCormick Correctional Institution

The McCormick Correctional Institution is a medium-security prison located in McCormick County, SC. Designed to house around 1,400 inmates, this prison has developed a reputation for dangerous gang activity and poor administration.

One of the most organized gangs inside McCormick is the “Surenos 13” group. This prison gang with Mexican Mafia ties has been linked to extortion, drug trafficking and murder plots from within McCormick Correctional.

In 2020, the SCDC police intervened in a major operation where Surenos 13 members were coercing inmates into smuggling drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl into the facility.

Beyond the gang violence, the prison has also faced scrutiny for neglecting health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their poor handling of outbreaks put both inmates and staff at greater risk.

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While McCormick Correctional houses less violent offenders compared to higher security prisons, it still suffers from disorder, gang influence and questionable administration. Significant reform is needed to help this institution reach its rehabilitation goals.

Kirkland Correctional Institution

Lastly, Kirkland Correctional Institution has developed a troubled reputation despite its medium-security classification. Located in Columbia, SC, this prison can house around 950 inmates.

One of the main issues Kirkland has faced is an epidemic of illegal cell phones smuggled among its inmate population. In a 2019 raid, over 200 contraband phones were confiscated along with illegal drugs and homemade weapons.

Access to illicit cell phones allows inmates at Kirkland to continue criminal activities like fraud and drug trafficking from behind bars. It also poses a major safety risk to correctional staff and civilians if used to plan violent acts.

Along with contraband problems, Kirkland has also faced multiple lawsuits over allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse by its staff against inmates. If true, this type of misconduct by authority figures can create an even more toxic and volatile environment.

Until major staffing and cell phone interdiction improvements are made, Kirkland Correctional Institution will likely continue to be considered one of South Carolina’s most troubled prisons in terms of safety and security.

Timeline of Major Incidents at Worst SC Prisons

April 2018Lee Correctional InstitutionDeadly riot leaves 7 inmates killed, 22 seriously injured due to stabbings and slashings
October 2021Perry Correctional InstitutionInmate strangled and stabbed cellmate to death
2020McCormick Correctional InstitutionInvestigation dismantles drug smuggling ring run by “Surenos 13” gang members
2019Kirkland Correctional InstitutionOver 200 illegal cellphones confiscated in raid

Frequently Asked Questions About SC’s Worst Prisons

What makes a prison considered one of the “worst” in SC?

Some factors that can earn a prison a poor reputation include overcrowding, lack of resources, unsanitary conditions, inadequate healthcare, gang violence, high drug use, and corrupt staff. Lee, Perry, McCormick and Kirkland have exhibited many of these issues.

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Which prison in SC had the deadliest riot in recent years?

In April 2018, Lee Correctional Institution experienced one of the deadliest prison riots in 25 years. 7 inmates were killed and 22 were seriously injured, mainly due to stabbing and slashing wounds from homemade knives.

How have illegal cell phones impacted prisons like Kirkland CI?

Smuggled cell phones allow inmates to continue criminal enterprises like drug trafficking and fraud while incarcerated. They also can facilitate communication between gang members and pose a safety threat if used to plan attacks on inmates or staff.

Why is gang violence a major issue at McCormick Correctional Institution?

The notorious prison gang Surenos 13 has established strong influence at McCormick through activities like extortion, drug distribution and murder plots orchestrated from within the prison. Authorities have intervened but the gang presence remains strong.

What contributed to the inmate homicide at Perry Correctional in 2021?

An investigation found negligence among the staff at Perry who failed to separate a volatile, high-risk inmate from the general population. This allowed him to brutally beat and murder his cellmate without intervention.


While all prisons face challenges, Lee Correctional Institution, Perry Correctional Institution, McCormick Correctional Institution and Kirkland Correctional Institution have earned notoriety for issues ranging from deadly riots to rampant contraband to unconstrained gang violence.

Meaningful reforms are needed to improve health and safety, decrease overcrowding, limit illegal smuggling, remove corrupt staff and reestablish control over the prisoner population. With better funding, policies, leadership and training, the worst prisons in South Carolina can work towards meeting their rehabilitative goals and improving conditions for inmates and staff.

However, quick fixes are unlikely in such chronically underfunded and understaffed institutions. It will require major investment and a cultural shift before true progress is made. South Carolina’s government and department of corrections must make prison reform a top priority if the state wants to decrease recidivism rates and build safer communities.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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