The Buzz

Riot gains focus in SC Juvenile Justice guard reports

Construction on the state’s juvenile justice compound in 2012. (File Photo)
Construction on the state’s juvenile justice compound in 2012. (File Photo)

Male inmates at the state’s juvenile justice compound smashed windows to enter a girls dormitory, overpowered a guard protecting some of the girls, set fires and ripped sinks from walls, according to guards’ recollections of the Feb. 26 riot off Broad River Road.

The disturbance led to investigations of the agency and promises of reform, which included the immediate hiring of an interim police chief – a position that, along with a gang expert and special response team, had gone vacant before the riot.

Violence erupted at about 8:30 p.m. in a boys and a girls dorm and in other facilities on the sprawling S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice complex off Broad River Road, according to more than a dozen reports written by guards that The State obtained Tuesday through a public-records request.

Many of the reports detailed guards’ efforts to secure the safety of female inmates, restrain the rioting youth and move from one facility to another answering multiple calls for assistance as the evening progressed.

According to one report, an inmate said he and his peers decided to riot after their dorm was “told we were not going back to school.” The plan, the inmate said, was “to riot and break out of the unit” and run to another dorm “to fight the other kids,” according the guard.

Fourteen male inmates have been arrested in connection with the incident, Juvenile Justice spokesman Eric Rousey said Tuesday.

Shortly after the riot, five juvenile inmates were arrested and charged as adults, The State reported in March. The inmates’ charges ranged from attempted murder and sexual assault to burglary, arson and malicious damage to property. The charges for the other nine inmates were not available Tuesday.

Of the five initially arrested, one inmate was accused of backing a motor vehicle into a man, then attempting to drive the vehicle into the man a second time.

Two inmates were accused of breaking into a facility for girls and sexually assaulting female victims. One inmate put his hands in a girl’s pants and another inmate pinned a girl’s hands behind her back and pressed himself against her, according to warrants.

Others were accused of breaking glass windows and doors, causing thousands of dollars in damage, throwing glass at a corrections officer and setting a fire in the dorm.

Male inmates pursuing, assaulting girls

The violence erupted between 8:30 and 8:45 p.m. when male inmates left their dorm and broke into a girls dorm, according to the reports.

Around that time, two guards said they were with female inmates in a dining area in the girls transition home on the Willow campus. Five girls were finishing snacks when they heard glass shattering from several rooms of the house, according to reports.

Then “several male juveniles started entering” the girls’ dorm, and the girls were told to go to their rooms, the reports say.

One male inmate started yelling, threatening violence. He and the other male inmates started kicking and punching glass out of “almost every window” in the dorm, a guard wrote.

According to one report, a guard called for assistance multiple times.

Inmates used a fire extinguisher and furniture to shatter glass doors and windows, including in the girls’ rooms.

The officers moved the girls into the restroom “to prevent the male juveniles from attacking them, but it was just too many of them to handle,” one guard wrote, adding that one male inmate, looking for the girls, said: “I’m trying to (have sex with) something tonight.”

Enough time lapsed, according to one report, that male inmates left and returned to the girls’ dorm, busting out windows and spraying a fire extinguisher. Looking for the female inmates, a male inmate forcibly pushed one guard on the ground, allowing other inmates into the bathroom with the girls, reports said.

After assistance arrived, the guards told the girls to get their clothes and blankets so they could move to another facility. While one girl was gathering her things, a male inmate was busting through her window, trying to get back into the dorm, according to one report.

Fires, damage in the boys dorm

Responding to a call about a disturbance at Cypress, a boys dorm located down the road from the Willow campus at the Broad River complex, one guard saw several male inmates leaving, shoving guards out of the way. One inmate threw a fire extinguisher at a guard. The extinguisher landed on the guard’s foot.

One female guard responding to Cypress dorm reported a male inmate hit her in her arm “with full force” with a fire extinguisher. Another reported that a male inmate was behind her in the courtyard and “grabbed and squeezed my buttocks” while she was dealing with other inmates.

Fires were set in two wings of the Cypress boys dorm, according to the guards. One guard said inmates were “ripping sinks out the wall and throwing them into the glass” leading into a control room where they smashed surveillance cameras. One inmate started a fire using a paper towel and another inmate put a shirt on the fire.

Another report said a fire was started in a nearby dorm on campus – the Poplar dorm. When the guard arrived, the fire was out but the building smelled of smoke and the air was hazy.

Hearing that the inmates were threatening the girls at their dorm, a guard and other officers drove over to the girls dorm. The guard ran after an inmate running to a nearby chapel on the girls’ campus. When the guard approached, the inmate turned toward him holding a pair of scissors, telling the guard to back up. In his report, the guard said he convinced the inmate to give up the scissors.

Stolen vehicles, escape

Hearing of a break-in, a group of guards went to the inspector general’s office, located at the front entrance of the Juvenile Justice property. They found a purse emptied on the ground and then went outside where they heard someone scream “the juveniles have a car.”

The guards tried to stop the car, stolen by an inmate, according to reports. The inmate driving the car rammed a personal vehicle that was parked in front of the inspector general’s office, causing “a large amount of damage,” a report said.

The inmate driving the car also drove toward a guard who jumped out of the way. The car then jumped the curb and became stranded, at which point one of the inmates jumped out and fled, later to be found hiding under a tractor on the property.

Inmates also reportedly broke into a vending machine at the John G. Richards substance-abuse treatment facility and stole snacks. They also broke into a medical dispensary and stole medications.

At Birchwood High School located on the Juvenile Justice complex, several inmates were on top of one of the school buildings, refusing to get down, other reports said.

One guard said the inmates were throwing rocks and bricks, trying to hit staff and damaging a nearby vehicle. One inmate tried to light a fire on top of the building, but did not succeed, according to reports.

Another report said that Juvenile Justice Director Sylvia Murray and the agency’s deputy director were out talking to the inmates, directing them to come down from the roof, which they eventually did.

An inmate also escaped by removing rebar from a weather drain that led under the fence, the reports say. The inmate was arrested at the Dollar Tree on Broad River Road, about two miles – or a 45 minute walk – away from the Juvenile Justice compound. It’s unclear when he was captured.

Reforms at Juvenile Justice

The agency says it is making changes to prevent incidents similar to the February riot, including offering more overtime to guards to fill in gaps in shifts and filling vacancies. The changes also include:

▪  Hiring an interim police chief, a position that had gone vacant about 2.5 years before the February incident. Freddie Pough is on loan from the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.

▪  Getting aggressive against gangs, said to have gained power at Juvenile Justice

▪  Training a special response team whose mission is to respond quickly to violence or security issues

▪  Putting in place a new secure alert system to contact Juvenile Justice employees during security incidents

▪  Stepping up contraband searches, including buying additional hand-held metal detectors

▪  Separating inmates into three sections depending on their behavior

▪  Upgrading the facilities with unbreakable glass, tamper-proof furniture and razor-wire fencing