Nearly eight hours of rioting at a maximum-security South Carolina prison left at least seven inmates dead and 17 others injured, authorities said.

State officials defended their response to the prison brawl — one of the deadliest in the country’s recent history — amid allegations that officers did little to curb the violence early on and did not render aid as quickly as they could have.

Fighting began around 7:15 p.m. Sunday at one of the housing units at Lee Correctional Institution, as detention officers were conducting a nightly check-in, state corrections director Bryan Stirling said at a news conference Monday.

Around 8:30 p.m., two more fights erupted at two other housing units at Lee Correctional as well, he said.

The fighting triggered a standard response in which guards at each of the dorms left the housing units and called for backup, Stirling said.

“They’re outnumbered, so they’re trained to back out of that dorm and call for support,” Stirling said. “And that’s what we believe they did last night because support arrived immediately.”

According to Stirling, backup teams from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) entered the first housing unit at 11:30 p.m. Sunday to “take that dorm back.” They did the same for the second and third dorms at 12:30 a.m. and 2 a.m. Monday, respectively, he said.

The prison was secured at 2:55 a.m. Monday, and no officers or staff members were harmed, officials said.

SLED spokesman Thom Berry said an investigation was underway “to determine what caused the disturbance.”

Stirling said that they believed that word of the fight spread from the first dorm to the others through contraband cellphones.

“This was all about territory. This was about contraband. This was about cellphones,” Stirling said. “These folks are fighting over real money and real territory when they are incarcerated.”

Late Monday morning, the corrections department identified the seven dead inmates as Raymond Angelo Scott, Michael Milledge, Damonte Marquez Rivera, Eddie Casey Jay Gaskins, Joshua Svwin Jenkins, Corey Scott and Cornelius Quantral McClary.

The Lee County coroner told the Associated Press that most of the dead appeared to have been killed by stabbing or slashing.

Emergency crews from at least a half-dozen agencies responded to the “mass casualty incident,” according to Lee County Fire and Rescue.

Lee Correctional Institution is one of South Carolina’s highest-security prisons, which means the inmates are generally tightly monitored and their movements inside the facility are limited.

Of South Carolina’s nine all-male, maximum-security prisons, Lee Correctional — in Bishopville, about 60 miles northeast of Columbia — is the largest.

The prison houses about 1,600 male inmates, the majority of them in general housing rather than more restricted housing, according to state records.

Violence at Lee Correctional is not uncommon. During the past year, at least three inmates were killed in separate incidents, while last month, inmates held an officer hostage for about an hour-and-a-half before releasing him, according to the State newspaper.

[Chicago jailhouse brawl captured on camera]

An investigation by the State’s John Monk found that the number of inmates killed across the state’s prisons had quadrupled from three inmates in 2015 to 12 inmates in 2017.

Stirling told Monk that the trend can be partly attributed to an increase in inmates obtaining cellphones, chronic understaffing, gang rivalries and a higher ratio of violent prisoners to nonviolent ones.

On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster told the AP that he had “complete confidence” in Stirling as the head of the Department of Corrections. At a news conference, he seemed to characterize the riot as an unfortunate but unsurprising incident because inmates “take their violent ways with them” when incarcerated.

“We know that prisons are places where people who have misbehaved on the outside go for rehabilitation and also to take them from the general population,” McMaster said. “It’s not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside the prison, any prison in the country. … It is unfortunate when they do happen but this is one of those instances when they did.”

According to the department, the number of inmates held in state prisons has declined in recent years after peaking nearly a decade ago. More than 20,400 inmates were held in South Carolina facilities last year, down from a peak of 24,040 in 2010, state records show.

This post has been updated.

Razor wire protects a perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. (Sean Rayford/AP)

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