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A Gratiot County prison is on lockdown after fights involving roughly 50 prisoners broke out over three days, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The fighting involved rival gangs “trying to establish territory” regarding the use of the phone and electronic messaging programs at the St. Louis Correctional Facility, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said.

The roughly 1,100-inmate facility is one step down from being maximum security.

Prisoners sustained some minor scrapes and bruises in the fights, Gautz said. Officers breaking up one of the fights found homemade knives on the ground, he said, but they did not appear to have been used.

Gautz said the arrangement that appears to have prompted the skirmishes is prohibited in the prison, and essentially involved exchanges of store items or other similar currency available at the prison for use of phones or JPay, an electronic messaging platform.

“They had quietly come to an agreement among themselves until one of the groups decided that they were bigger than the other and tried to push them out,” he said.

The fighting began Thursday and involved roughly five prisoners that day. Gautz said the issue appeared to be contained after corrections officers intervened and no similar incidents followed on Friday and Saturday.

“On Sunday, we had four different incidents in one housing unit,” Gautz said.

The incidents Sunday broke out at each meal and involved 19 people in a post-segregation unit, a sort of step-down unit between segregation and general population.

On Monday morning, another 15 prisoners began fighting in the yard. While breaking up those fights, corrections officers noticed the homemade knives and moved the prisoners involved into segregation.

Corrections officers tried to move prisoners slowly to lunch that day, Gautz said, but when additional fighting broke out among another 13 prisoners, officials put the facility on lockdown.

Twenty prisoners were moved to different facilities, Gautz said, and the others involved are in temporary segregation pending hearings.

Gautz said bagged meals have been delivered to housing units during the lockdown, which the prison hopes to lift gradually through the week. He said prison officials want to ensure they understand the full scope of the issue before returning to normal.

“It’s possible that we could stretch into early next week because we’re not going to do anything quickly,” Gautz said. “We don’t want to do anything too soon and have things flare back up.”

The fights at the St. Louis facility occurred shortly before and after a riot Sunday in a South Carolina prison left seven dead and 17 seriously injured. The Associated Press reported inmates at Lee Correctional Institution were armed with homemade knives and fought for several hours.

Gautz said the fighting at St. Louis Correction Facility is not believed to be related to the riot in South Carolina.

He said corrections officers acted swiftly to maintain control of the facility and avoid any staff injuries.

“It’s a real testament to their professionalism and their ability to do the job they’re trained to do,” Gautz said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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