South Carolina

Juvenile Justice unsafe, guards untrained before riots, SC watchdog says

Guards overseeing the state’s youthful inmates said they felt in danger before recent riots at a Columbia facility, the state’s watchdog told lawmakers Thursday.

Those guards also felt like there were no consequences for bad behavior by youthful offenders at the Department of Juvenile Justice facility.

S.C. Inspector General Patrick Maley also said guards were not adequately trained to deal with out-of-control inmates.

Lawmakers asked Maley to look into Juvenile Justice in March. Maley told House and Senate members tasked with oversight of the youth corrections agency Thursday that his review included interviews with 31 Juvenile Justice employees.

Maley said Juvenile Justice has set into motion a plan that should address the agency’s security problems. That plan was in motion before a February riot that agency officials said resulted in the destruction of property, sexual assaults on female inmates, fires set in living quarters and an inmate escape. That riot led to 14 arrests.

Separating violent inmates is part of the strategy, Maley said, adding Juvenile Justice officials realized their therapeutic approach to treating inmates was failing. The agency already was planning to put in place a disciplinary system where consequences for misbehavior are defined clearly, he said.

Staffing issues, however, need a closer look, he said.

Guards now are working 12-hour shifts, which Maley said “is not a good idea. It’s not like you’re sitting there watching the clock for 12 hours.”

Guards must have energy, be engaged, and have skills in mentoring and in handling out-of-control inmates, he said, adding Juvenile Justice guards do not have the training they need to deal with violent or gang-related incidents.

“When it comes to their training, they’re not even provided methods for gaining control of these juveniles. They will have to go hands-on with these kids, and not having them trained creates a lot of issues.”

Juvenile Justice director Sylvia Murray told the panel a survey of staff showed guards preferred the 12-hour shifts because it allows them to work about 14 days a month.

“That’s a benefit for the employees, and they like it so much better.”

Changing to 12-hour shifts also was a cost-saving measure, she said.

But lawmakers raised questions about the 12-hour shifts.

“After eight hours, if I have a call – and it’s an emergency call – I want somebody who’s fresh going in there,” said state Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg.

“They may say they want to work 12 hours, but I promise you they’re not as sharp” at the end of that shift, he said.

Tallon and other lawmakers also raised questions about whether guards were being paid enough to attract quality workers.

“If you’re going to attract those people, you have to pay them appropriately. If you’re not doing that, you can’t expect to get the top line,” said state Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood.

Murray said the agency has asked for 23 new full-time positions. She also said the agency has made changes – separating inmates based on their behavior and the level of security, oversight and treatment they need.

“Keeping these kids separated is key” for ensuring safety on the campus, she said, adding the programs are going well.

The agency also is in the process of making several security upgrades in dorms, including replacing glass with shatter-proof plexiglass and replacing traditional furniture with furnishings that cannot be removed.