Prisoners at a troubled South Carolina jail accused of violating its inmates' civil rights mounted a riot on Sunday night, according to local police.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department said it had detained 40 people and charged at least 17 after breaking up a disturbance at the Alvin S Glenn Detention Center in Columbia, which holds between 700 and 1,100 people.
Inmates allegedly set clothes and bedsheets alight, banged on the windows, and armed themselves with improvised weapons. One inmate was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation, while no officers were injured.
It comes after the US Department of Justice (DoJ) launched an investigation into living conditions at the jail, saying there were "credible allegations" that it had failed to protect inmates from violence and sexual assault.
A state audit in 2022 found numerous standards violations including overcrowding, inadequate staffing, and poor pest control, while one lawyer for a man who died inside the jail described it as a “death trap”.
"Responding to crimes at the Detention Center is an everyday event for the Sheriff’s Department. Last night’s incident is not the first and will not be the last," said Richland County sheriff Leon Lott on Monday morning.
A spokesperson for the jail declined to comment on whether Sunday’s incident was related to the DoJ allegations.
According to a police incident report, firefighters and medics were called to one of the jail's "pods" – a self-contained housing unit for a small number of inmates – just after 8pm, but were unable to reach the blaze due to a "disturbance".
A county spokesperson said that inmates had set fire to the ceiling boards in Pod E of Unit Papa “following a fight between two detainees”.
Police officers arrived, observing "about 14 inmates on the upper level throwing items at the windows, and banging on them with socks filled with hard objects... two of the inmates were holding some sorta lethal cutting instruments".
Officers and guards then forced their way inside the pod and detained the inmates by threatening them with tasers. Fourteen people were charged with rioting, two with arson, and one with possession of contraband.
It is the latest in a long string of incidents and scandals at the detention centre, including a lawsuit alleging "inexcusable and indefensible" conditions for inmates with mental illnesses.
According to local broadcaster WIS, there have been at least 21 alleged stabbings, three inmate deaths, one sexual assault, and one escape since the beginning of this year
The DoJ’s announcement on 2 November was followed by four separate stabbings within the space of a week, all resulting in non-life-threatening injuries.
Richland County elected officials said that they welcomed the DoJ's investigation.