April 25, 2018 / 4:43 PM / in 8 months

Former South Carolina prison workers charged with smuggling contraband

(Reuters) - A federal grand jury has indicted 14 former South Carolina corrections employees on charges of taking bribes to smuggle drugs, cellphones and even a hamburger into prisons, authorities said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A guard tower is seen at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, Lee County, South Carolina, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill/File Photo

The charges were unsealed little more than a week after seven inmates were killed in a riot sparked by a fight among prison gangs over turf and contraband at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution.

The indictments of former guards, a nurse, a groundskeeper and service workers were filed on April 18. They are accused of taking bribes, wire fraud and smuggling cellphones and cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana into prisons from April 2015 to December 2017, court filings showed.

“These investigations have been going on a while and they continue,” U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said at a news conference in Columbia, the state capital.

Drake said the contraband had been intercepted before it reached inmates, and officials had seized food - including a hamburger - and liquor along with other banned items.

The former employees worked at eight prisons across the state, including Lee Correctional Institution, Drake said. The documents did not list attorneys for them.

The melee that erupted on April 15 at the Lee prison was the deadliest U.S. prison riot since 1993, when nine inmates and a corrections officer died at an Ohio institution.

Prison experts said the South Carolina riot exposed the vulnerability of understaffed prisons in the state and across the country.

Forty-four officers were guarding 1,583 prisoners at the South Carolina prison when the riot broke out. Bryan Stirling, head of the state Department of Corrections, told the State newspaper in January that about a quarter of all guard jobs were unfilled.

In a bid to stanch the flow of contraband, Governor Henry McMaster issued an executive order on Monday aimed at speeding up the hiring of prison guards by raising pay and other reforms. The order would also boost security measures, such as putting up netting to keep contraband from being thrown over fences.

McMaster has also asked federal officials to allow him to block cell signals on prison property. South Carolina officials have said for months that inmates used smuggled cellphones to engage in crimes committed outside prisons.

Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney

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