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Head of SC Juvenile Justice resigns

Improvements made to Juvenile detention center not enough

After a riot broke out in Columbia's juvenile detention center in 2015, improvements were made to the facility. This tour was taken in 2016.
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After a riot broke out in Columbia's juvenile detention center in 2015, improvements were made to the facility. This tour was taken in 2016.

The head of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice resigned Friday, just a day after a highly critical report was released on the troubled agency.

Sylvia Murray said in a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster that her resignation was effective Friday. She thanked him and wished him the best in his leadership of the state.

“This decision did not come easily, however, I have decided to pursue other career options,” wrote Murray, who is 55. “It has been an honor to serve the citizens of South Carolina, DJJ, and the children entrusted in our care.”

The agency’s inspector general, Freddie Pough, was named acting director. Gov. Henry McMaster thanked Murray for her service.

“We recognize the critical importance of continuing to strengthen this agency, and we are committed to ensuring that is done in the safest and most effective way possible,” McMaster said in a statement.

Murray’s stint as the agency director’s started in March 2015, when she was appointed to the cabinet-level post by then-Gov. Nikki Haley. At the time, her predecessor, Margaret Barber, predicted Murray would “take the agency to another level.”

But on Thursday, the state Legislative Audit Council released a report that criticized DJJ for being unprepared to respond to riots, having poorly trained correctional officers and an ineffective police force, and for not complying with standards meant to prevent rape.

The report was discussed at length before a House oversight panel, whose members grew visibly frustrated as auditors reviewed their findings; among them the agency’s failure to properly report the deaths of two juvenile inmates in 2014 and 2015.

The chairman of the oversight panel, Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said Friday that Murray’s resignation was probably the best thing for her and the department.

“It’s obvious that there were problems with the department that she was running,” Tallon said. “Sometimes it’s just best to have someone else and a new set of eyes to get the issues straightened away.”

Under Murray’s tenure, DJJ dealt with the fallout of a February 2016 riot at the Broad River Road incarceration facility in Columbia, where juvenile inmates set fires, destroyed property and assaulted guards and other inmates.

Following the riots, Pough – a then-lieutenant on loan from the State Law Enforcement Division – implemented several changes, including a more thorough search and seizure policy for all visitors and staff.

Pough also took an aggressive stance against gangs, and helped implement the department’s Special Response team and a new secure alert system to contact DJJ employees during security incidents.

Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Dorchester, said Friday the safety and security of DJJ’s children are “in a better place today.”

“I think this is a good clean fresh start for DJJ, and they should take this opportunity to get policy procedures in line for those kids,” Arrington said. “But as far as safety and security, I think it’s a good choice in the interim.”

In her role as director, Murray’s salary was $127,907, according to state records. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said DJJ was already troubled when Murray took the helm, but there were steps she could have taken to make things better at the agency.

“I think Sylvia Murray is a good person who inherited issues that were bigger than she was,” Shealy said. “We, as legislators, need to make certain that we take control of this situation now and make certain that oversight is in place.”

Staff writer Sarah Ellis contributed to this story.

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