Prisons and Penitentiaries

The first significant jail in South Carolina, a twelve-foot square designed to accommodate sixteen prisoners, was built in Charleston in 1769.

The first significant jail in South Carolina, a twelve-foot square designed to accommodate sixteen prisoners, was built in Charleston in 1769. Additional jails were built following the division of South Carolina into judicial districts. According to one account, “These jails were forbidding structures, reared to prevent escape and make life gloomy for their inmates.” South Carolina was slow to join the national penal reform movement taking place in antebellum America, and prison confinement as punishment remained relatively rare in the state. As late as 1813 the death penalty remained the standard punishment for no fewer than 165 crimes, although this harsh sentence was seldom carried out. Fines were by far the most popular method of punishment, followed by corporal punishments such as whipping or branding. Confinement in county jails seldom exceeded thirty days, and prison terms of more than three years were extremely rare. Overcrowding in county jails was the rule, and escapes were frequent. Nor were criminals sorted by offense, and offenders ranging from petty thieves to murderers could frequently be found in the same cell.

Although calls to reform the criminal code and establish a state penitentiary were commonplace in antebellum South Carolina, the General Assembly failed to take any concrete action until after the Civil War. In September 1866 the General Assembly passed an act establishing a state penitentiary. Situated on the banks of the Columbia Canal in the capital city, the facility began accepting prisoners in April 1868. Renamed in 1965 as the Central Correctional Institution (CCI), it became the most notorious of the state’s prisons. At the time of its construction, the new state penitentiary was considered revolutionary in its humanity, despite the fact that the original tiered cell block did not have a roof. Inmates slept on straw and climbed to their cells on ladders. The most infamous characteristic of the prison was a quarter-mile-long tunnel that started at the chapel and ended at the living areas. It was necessary to use this tunnel to move to any location within the prison. The inmates referred to it as “purgatory” because it was between “heaven” (the chapel) and “hell” (the living quarters). This area saw frequent outbreaks of violence, including a near riot between 200 black and white inmates in 1981. Another significant feature was the death house, which operated between 1912 and 1986. During that time 195 blacks and 48 whites were put to death in the electric chair. The original Cell Block One was still in use at the time of the prison’s closure. Since the building did not meet state fire codes, inmates had to volunteer to be housed in the five-feet by eight-feet cells that were locked with large padlocks. CCI was closed in 1994 when it was replaced by the 1,468-bed, $45 million Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. During 127 years of operation CCI housed 80,000 inmates and had 243 executions performed within its walls.

As of 2002, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (established in 1960) operated twenty-nine prisons. Combined, they housed more than 21,000 inmates. Each facility is categorized into one of four divisions. Division I institutions are minimum security, meaning that inmates are housed in double-bunk cubicles or open-bay wards and the perimeters of the facility are not fenced. These institutions are usually for inmates who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses and who have been given relatively short sentences. There are two varieties of this type of institution–prerelease centers and prisons. Prerelease centers prepare inmates for the transition back into society through specialized programs. Inmates are usually transferred from another prison to the prerelease center no more than thirty-six months prior to their scheduled release. There are seven of these centers scattered among Aiken, Florence, Richland, York, Charleston, and Spartanburg Counties. Additionally, there are four minimum-security prisons variously located in both Richland and Spartanburg Counties.

Division II institutions are considered to be medium security. This means that most of the facilities double bunk inmates in cells, while a few use double-bunk cubicles. Usually there is a single fence around the perimeter of the institution. The seven Division II prisons are in Clarendon, Dorchester, Edgefield, Jasper, Richland, Spartanburg, and Sumter Counties. The highest security levels are Division III prisons, in which violent offenders with long sentences are housed. The inmates are single or double bunked with close supervision and limited movement. The perimeters of these facilities are double fenced and staffed with armed guards and electronic security. There are nine such institutions in the state in Allendale, Anderson, Dorchester, Lancaster, Lee, Marlboro, McCormick, and Richland Counties.

Women’s facilities constitute a separate division (IV) but have the same security levels as the men’s facilities. There are two maximum-security facilities for women: the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, located at the Broad River correctional complex in Columbia; and Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood. A third facility, Goodman Correctional Institution, is minimum security and is in Columbia. In addition to state prisons, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has two facilities in the state, one in Edgefield and one in Estill. These prisons house inmates who have been convicted of federal crimes.

Allard, John. “Changing of the Guard.” Columbia State, February 13, 1994, pp. D1, D6–D7.

Thomas, John Charles. “The Development of ‘An Institution’: The Establishment and First Years of the South Carolina Penitentiary, 1795–1881.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1983.

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The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Prisons and Penitentiaries
  • Author
  • Keywords first significant jail in South Carolina, a twelve-foot square designed to accommodate sixteen prisoners, was built in Charleston in 1769, Central Correctional Institution (CCI), Lee Correctional Institution, South Carolina Department of Corrections, Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, located at the Broad River correctional complex in Columbia; and Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 25, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 22, 2018
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