An advocacy organization says South Carolina’s juvenile justice agency is at risk of repeating problems it has previously faced and is calling on state government to intervene before it’s too late.
The group Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities has published a report urging immediate action to address the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice’s ills. The organization sued DJJ in 1990, leading to notable reforms.
But the report says the agency now is in danger of “expanding a fundamentally flawed system” if it proceeds with a proposal to build more large, centralized facilities that rely on a “disturbing overuse of solitary confinement” and in which children are more likely to be sexually victimized by other teens or staff.
The report received little attention from South Carolina’s legislators when it was published in April. At the time, the state’s adult corrections agency was dealing with the killings of four inmates, and lawmakers were racing to learn more about what could be done to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
But the juvenile justice agency has had its own share of violent incidents at the Broad River Road complex in Columbia, where it holds about 90 to 110 teens between the ages of 13 and 18.
In February 2016, gang activity led to a riot. Five offenders were arrested on a range of charges, from attempted murder and sexual battery to burglary, arson and malicious damage to property.
In the wake of the violence, the report calls on the Legislature to improve conditions and provide adequate treatment for children in DJJ custody. It lays out a map for reforms that include limiting the number of children committed to DJJ custody and moving away from centralized prisons.
Staff at the juvenile justice department, including interim director Freddie Pough, dispute the report’s assertions. They argue many of the findings were based on issues taken out of context and say the report doesn’t account for reforms that are underway or already have been implemented.
Under Pough’s direction, the agency has trained its officers to be more vigilant. The facility now has a gang intervention specialist and fewer instances of contraband, Pough said. More kids are obtaining GEDs. And solitary confinement is treated as less of a punishment and more of a program designed to reintroduce children as quickly as possible to the general population, he said.
Pough also is revisiting reforms DJJ made to comply with the 1990s lawsuit in hopes of redirecting the agency down a path its critics once lauded. But accomplishing that will take time, Pough said.
“There’s a number of things that we’ve done to try to right the ship,” Pough said. “DJJ is safer today. It’s more secure today.”
‘Lock-up makes me feel suicidal’
The April report came just months after a scathing audit by the Legislative Audit Council that revealed DJJ was unprepared to respond to riots, had poorly trained correctional officers and had failed to report the deaths of two juveniles.
The report by the advocacy organization added that DJJ data revealed solitary confinement is used for days and weeks at a time. The report went on to say that information obtained from the agency showed 91 different children were placed in at least one form of segregation during a two-month period in 2016.
“On any given day in 2016, an average of 16.8 percent of all children housed at DJJ’s Broad River Road complex were in segregation,” the report said. “On many days, that figure spikes well over 20 percent.”
A child is quoted in the report who was being held at a crisis management unit in April 2016. The child, who provided a statement through an attorney to be quoted in the report, reported being in “lock-up” for 23 days.
“During the 23 days here I’ve only been outside once, we don’t go to school, never been to the cafeteria and not allowed to socialize with each other,” the child wrote. “Being in lock-up makes me feel suicidal because I’m claustrophobic.”
But DJJ staff insist that’s not how segregation works for teens. Andy Broughton, director of institutional programs, said only children who are not calm, cooperative and safe are placed in segregation. And rarely do they spend more than just a few hours there before returning to their original dorms, he said.
The agency also has an intensive treatment unit, where kids who are showing aggressive behaviors are held. Teens spend at least two weeks away from the general population in that dorm.
“They have to earn their way out,” Broughton said. “It’s up to them how they behave themselves.”
Unlike what the child in the report described, children in that dorm are taken to a classroom where they still take classes, Broughton said. They also meet with counselors to help them address their behavioral issues.
On Thursday, two boys held in segregation could be seen attending a class. Good behavior earned them 10 minutes of play time on the computer, according to instructions on a white, dry-erase board.
Still, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, worries about the agency’s use of segregation.
“All you’re doing is lighting a powder keg out there because those kids need to get out,” Shealy said. “They’ve lost sight that they really are children.”
Teen’s rape ‘appalling’
Perhaps the biggest concern the report expressed was over the proposal for expanding the agency’s centralized prison instead of focusing on smaller, localized rehabilitation facilities. Nationwide, the smaller, decentralized facilities are linked to a lower incidence of sexual abuse.
In 2012, a federal Department of Justice survey identified South Carolina as one of four states with sexual victimization rates higher than the national average of 9.5 percent. The survey said 29.2 percent of kids held at the Birchwood facility of the Broad River Road complex and 20 percent of those held at the John G. Richards unit reported being sexually victimized.
Another child, who also provided a statement through an attorney, reported being raped by a roommate and sexually assaulted by another juvenile while incarcerated.
“When that happened, my whole life changed,” the child wrote. “When I went back home, I wasn’t the same. I didn’t eat, sleep or talk. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said that’s “appalling.”
“Anything the state can do to stop it, the state needs to do so,” he said. “These children will one day be released back into society, and the government – the state – should not be involved in creating ticking time bombs.”
Pough said the agency is on its way to becoming compliant with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). It requires that all correctional facilities meet a series of standards that aim to eliminate sexual assaults in prison. A PREA coordinator has been hired to make sure DJJ’s policies are in compliance with the federal act and that staff are being trained on how to conduct themselves, Pough said.
He also said the agency will be revisiting its master plan to determine how to proceed overall. DJJ is not “shunning any ideas,” including decentralizing facilities, Pough said.
“We want to make sure that ... we’re equipped to house those juveniles,” he said. “But we also want to do it in a way that is effective for the families that are going to be affected by it as well as the citizens.”
RIGHTING THE SHIP
Pough faces an uphill battle to improve morale at the agency and get staffers to go along with reforms.
Unlike his predecessor, who resigned in January, Pough said he’s using the audit to correct things, instead of rebuffing it. It’s one of two audits he has used to improve the agency’s response to incidents at DJJ, he said.
In the meantime, GED rates are increasing, he said. During the 2014-15 school year, 48 teens earned a GED, according to information provided by the agency. By the 2016-17 school year, that number had gone up to 81.
In July, the agency is set to graduate more than 100, its highest number yet.
Pough, who has been serving as interim director since late January, said the agency’s progress highlights its new motto: “Empowering our youth for the future.”
“We do more than just house juveniles,” Pough said. “We truly want to empower these young people.”
Whether Pough will get to finish his vision, however, remains unclear. His boss, Gov. Henry McMaster, has not nominated Pough to become the agency’s permanent director, though McMaster’s spokesman has said the governor is encouraged with the agency’s direction under Pough’s leadership.
Even if McMaster nominates Pough, the 2017 legislative session has ended. Shealy said she raised the issue of a permanent director before. But now, it won’t be until the 2018 session that the issue gets resolved.
Meanwhile, Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney, said he’s confident Pough will take DJJ in the direction it should go. But he worries McMaster’s budgeting approach will prevent Pough from running the agency as it should be run.
“If you want to be innovative and follow the science, you’re probably going to have to spend money on the upfront that you simply don’t have,” Rutherford said. “But this state, under Republican control, has created this cycle of violence that is now being played out on our children at DJJ. ... Not funding DJJ properly only leads to more problems, not less.”