The director of South Carolina’s juvenile prison system says her agency has shifted its focus towards a stricter environment after a series of incidents in the past year.
Department of Juvenile Justice Director Sylvia Murray told a Senate panel Tuesday that the agency is reversing its policy the past few years of making its long-term prison outside Columbia more like a dormitory and less like a jail. Murray said previous “restorative justice” efforts were not doing enough to counter increasingly violent teen inmates a gang members.
“This particular setting did not fit for our juveniles,” Murray told the panel. “The juveniles were not being held accountable for the offenses they were actually doing ‘behind the fence.’ So, we had to move to a more severe setting.”
Murray said a series of incidents, including a takeover of a dorm by inmates last year and a riot at the Broad River facility in February, prompted major changes in security at the DJJ’s long-term housing facility for its worst offenders.
Last month, DJJ employees testified to a separate House oversight panel that the February incident led to severe damage in one of the dorms and even an escape by one teen. On Tuesday, senators learned more about the incident that brought DJJ’s security gaps into the public eye. Broad River Administrator Elwood Sessions told the panel some juveniles broke out of their rooms and tried to break into the main control room so they could control all doors.
During the struggle by unarmed DJJ officers to restore order, Sessions said some males escaped into the yard and broke into the female dormitory. Others were able to enter the police annex building, where they stole one officer’s personal vehicle keys and tried to drive off before getting stuck on a curb. One juvenile male escaped through a broken drainage pipe during the melee, but was recaptured after a few hours.
“This night sounds like the night from Hell,” State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, told Sessions.
“It was,” he answered.
Murray said numerous security changes have been made since that night. Among them, a special response team has now been created to handle whenever a situation spirals out of control for the regular staff. The agency has also entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the State Law Enforcement Division as to when the state police will be called to the scene. The agency has also started bolting all its furniture and sinks because they were being as weapons. It’s also installed shatter-proof glass windows.
But the DJJ director admitted a major difficulty for her agency is high turnover among corrections officers who guard the facility. In fact, she estimated DJJ is short 45 officers for what it needs “behind the fence” at Broad River. She said low salary is likely the biggest problem. “Last year, I went within my budget and did a six percent increase for the officers, because we are the lowest-paid correctional officers in the state,” Murray told the panel, adding DJJ officers usually earn a $26,000 salary and are often not much older than the juveniles they watch.
The panel’s chairman State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, questioned how DJJ was spending a $3 million surplus it received in the previous year’s budget. Murray said the money was funding some of the Broad River security upgrades, but she wasn’t sure the one-time money should be used for annual salaries. Another panel member State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, wondered aloud if it could be used as signing bonuses for new hires.
But Lourie questioned why Murray and Gov. Nikki Haley did not request a salary increase in their budget recommendations, as the governor had for corrections officers at adult prisons. “When I see 40 percent (turnover), that’s enough to have a siren going off that we’ve got a problem,” he told Murray. “I mean, is six percent enough?”