After a series of riots and a surprise visit to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice’s Broad River Road complex by Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s juvenile agency is putting in new plans to better handle discipline and security.
The latest riot, on the evening of Feb. 26, started with a fire in a dorm, said agency director Sylvia Murray. After evacuating the dorm, several inmates began breaking glass. At least one inmate was able to escape the complex.
The House Legislative Oversight Committee sent a letter to Haley alleging a shortage of correction officers was creating difficulties in controlling juvenile inmates. The letter also said corrections officers were told not to report or downplay incidents involving inmates, including rapes being labeled "inappropriate touching."
The committee meets Thursday to discuss what to do next with the agency, which has 109 inmates at its Broad River Road complex.
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Juvenile Justice officials said Wednesday they have not discouraged corrections officers from reporting incidents. But they acknowledged some changes are needed.
The agency will reinstate a system with more severe penalties for inmates who disobey or assault staff. A system put in place under Murray's predecessor tried to mediate more disputes between inmates and officers. That "one-size-fits-all approach" was not working, said agency general counsel Elizabeth Hill.
Younger inmates also are more violent than in the past because more of them were in gangs, agency officials said.
"The sanctions that we were imposing upon those juveniles were probably not as stern as we probably should have,” Murray said.
The agency also plans to:
▪ Separate inmates into three sections depending on their behavior
▪ Add a rapid-response team of correction officers who will receive an extra $1,500 a year
▪ Bolster staffing from 6 to 10 p.m., a vulnerable period when inmates are out of school
▪ Step up searches for contraband, including buying additional hand-held metal detectors
In addition, the 120 corrections officers at the Broad River Road complex will get overtime pay to help fill staffing gaps. The agency has more than 30 openings for corrections officers. Lawmakers are pushing for more pay for officers in the state budget that takes effect July 1.
The state also plans to upgrade the complex with unbreakable glass, tamper-resistant furniture and more razor-wire fencing.
"What we saw two weeks ago at the Department of Juvenile Justice was unacceptable," Haley, who spent three hours at the complex Tuesday, said in a statement. "We have a team in place that is ready to do whatever it takes."