TRAVIS MEDLOCK still has the rubber hose he seized from a guard at a state juvenile prison.
The year was 1969, and the young Richland County House member was co-chairing a joint legislative committee studying the state’s juvenile justice system. Acting on a tip from a social worker about routine physical abuse, he made “a personal surprise investigation” of the John G. Richards School for Boys, which is what we used to call juvenile prisons. “At the time,” Mr. Medlock recalled, the guard with the hose was “herding a group of very small African-American boys into an open shower area.”
A reporter with the Christian Science Monitor would visit a few weeks later at Mr. Medlock’s urging and then testify before Mr. Medlock’s committee that “I found boys at the school beaten over the head and body with a leather belt, ropes, fists, a bog-shaped wooden handle, sticks, and, I’m told, chains, too.” The reporter also found that young boys had developed venereal diseases after being raped by older boys at the facility.
“The facts were mind-boggling and became more so as we dug deeper,” Mr. Medlock told me recently. Dickensesque, even.
The head of the facility resigned within months, and the Legislature overhauled “the entire antiquated, corrupt system” and, within three years, created the Department of Youth Services, which is the predecessor to today’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
Mr. Medlock’s 48-year-old memory was triggered by an advocacy group’s warning this summer that the agency is at risk of repeating the same problems of sexual and other physical abuse that the group had cited back in 1990. (There were other outbreaks of abuse, and reforms, between 1969 and 1990.)
“It is interesting,” Mr. Medlock said, “that the issues you and your colleagues address daily are the same issues we confronted more than 50 years ago.”
Indeed. But more interesting is Mr. Medlock’s prescription for dealing with those recurring problems.
“I long ago concluded that all state custodial facilities should experience ‘unannounced’ legislative investigations at least every 10 years or so,” said Mr. Medlock, who went on to serve a term in the state Senate and then three terms as the state’s attorney general. “Caring for prisoners and mentally ill patients is not a ‘sexy’ political issue. Therefore, over time, they inevitably tend to ‘die on the vine.’”
There are two very important observations packed into those three sentences.
The first is one we ought to keep in mind whenever we complain that our most recent governmental reform — whatever it was — was a failure. Maybe it was. Or maybe it’s unrealistic to expect that certain types of problems will ever be permanently solved, human beings being human beings.
The Legislature finally has come to terms with the need to regularly review all state agencies, in hopes of spotting small problems before they become big problems. Lawmakers might want to consider whether they should more frequently review agencies that are in charge of the custodial care of people, from inmates and the mentally ill to children in foster care.
The second thing to notice is Mr. Medlock’s “how-to” guide for the oversight committees: Use the element of surprise.
“No caucus meetings and extensive discussions, no checking out for political correctness as to who it may offend, no complex coordinating and planning and paying big fees to out-of-state experts, no fancy rhetoric,” he said. “No ‘appropriate delays.’ Do it!”
I do think it sometimes makes sense to call in experts, but I love the idea of a single legislator — or a handful of legislators, and maybe a staffer to shoot video — just dropping in unannounced to tour a prison or mental health facility, or one of those privately run group homes that the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs can’t seem to keep in line.
It would be hit and miss, and catching bad behavior would be much less likely after the first visit that turns up problems, because everyone would be on notice that they could get their own surprise visit.
But think about that for a moment. The effect would be similar to that of random audits — which the IRS uses routinely to catch tax cheats and the House Ethics Committee now uses to review representatives’ compliance with the campaign finance law — except that it has the potential to catch people doing something a lot worse than cheating on their taxes or misusing donors’ money.
Everyone who worked at facilities charged with the detention and 24/7 care of human beings would know that legislators could show up at any moment, video camera recording. Any employees who were doing things they shouldn’t be doing would have to worry that they could be caught, and caught by someone who would have no temptation to sweep it under the rug or give them another chance.
This wouldn’t stop all the bad people from doing bad things. It wouldn’t catch all the bad things that are being done. It would simply give legislators another tool to use to make sure our government is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s a tool they ought to be using.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.