A South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) employee told members of a state House subcommittee Thursday that gangs have become increasingly active at the department’s facilities in Columbia, saying they were likely to blame for a near-riot last month.
Catherine McKnight told the House Oversight subcommittee she was working as a on February 26, but left shortly before a riot broke out at a DJJ holding facility in Columbia. The February incident came to light this week after Columbia TV station WACH reported about a dozen youth damaged buildings at the site. McKnight said she returned to find heavy damage inside the dormitory where she works.
“Is DJJ in a crisis? Yes,” McKnight told the panel. “Am I afraid? Yes. Is there an escalation of violence? Yes.”
McKnight told the committee that DJJ security staff are undermanned and not prepared for such violent incidents. “My issue of concern are gangs,” she said. “The gangs are roaming the campus and the officers are not trained or equipped to handle the violent behavior.” She added many of the guards are often in their early 20s and only a few years older than the teens they are guarding.
Members of the committee became visibly frustrated after DJJ Director Sylvia Murray confirmed the agency has not had a police chief for more than two years and has instead relied on its inspector general to juggle both jobs.
“How could you possibly deal with that if you don’t have a police chief or you don’t have a gang intervention officer?” State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, asked.
Murray said the agency has struggled to hire at its positions. She said the agency has recently hired a State Law Enforcement Division official to act as interim police chief until they make a permanent hire.
Legislators on the committee had been aware of problems at DJJ, with Oversight Committee Chairman Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, sending a letter to the Governor’s Office outlining their concerns. Gov. Nikki Haley visited the affected DJJ facility in northwest Columbia on Tuesday in response to lawmakers’ worries.
On Thursday, lawmakers indicated they would ask the Legislative Audit Council to review the agency and find ways to improve operations. South Carolina Inspector General Patrick Maley also indicated his office would look into the agency.
Murray was appointed by the governor in January 2015 to replace her retiring predecessor Margaret Barber.