An auditor who reviewed security procedures at a South Carolina juvenile prison recommends that officers at the facility be better trained before carrying pepper spray, although he noted other states do not use it on teens.
Larry Reid of Correctional Consulting Services Group, Inc., made the comments Wednesday in a videoconference with state House and Senate members. The House Legislative Oversight Committee and the Senate Special Study Committee held the hearing Wednesday as both panels review issues reported at the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
The recommendation was among the more than 100 made in June by the Correctional Consulting audit, Reid said. While it did not recommend guards carry pepper spray, it does state they should be properly trained if DJJ decides to use the chemical. “There’s a concern about misuse of that particular tool,” he told lawmakers. “And there have been lawsuits that have been filed that some have found… misuse.”
Reid’s audit only examined DJJ’s Broad River facility, which has been the site of several incidents. Most notable was a February riot by about a dozen teens that seriously damaged several dormitories and vehicles at the facility just northwest of Columbia. After the riot, legislators learned DJJ had been without a police chief for two years and no emergency rapid-response team. DJJ correctional officers have begun carrying pepper spray at Broad River since May, but are otherwise unarmed.
Some lawmakers like State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, questioned why unarmed guards need training to carry the spray when it’s widely available to the general public. “I just can’t grasp why we’d go to the extent… just to carry this product that can be sold over-the-counter to anybody wanting to equip themselves for personal safety.”
But Reid replied officers would need to be instructed to only employ pepper spray as a last resort in a physical confrontation. He noted most other states do not use the spray, instead relying on voice commands or physical force when an inmate does not follow orders.
Other Statehouse members were concerned that it took DJJ officials more than two hours to call the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and State Law Enforcement Division for backup after they lost control in the February riot. “A 260-pound 16-year-old with a violent record… asking him to stop nicely has not generally worked in the past,” State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, said. “Does it surprise you that it takes two hours to ask other law enforcement agencies… to intervene?”
“It’s shocking, taking two hours to request response in a very contentious situation,” Reid responded. He said better training of the staff would help ensure they would properly respond to an incident outside their control.
In all, Corrections Consulting made 110 recommendations in its audit. However, the specific findings have not been made public due to security concerns. At Finlay’s request, Reid agreed to release a redacted version next month that would summarize the findings and remove any specifics about the Broad River facility that could harm put personnel at risk if made public.
Another recommendation Reid mentioned would be for DJJ to routinely review its policies as changing state laws bring fewer teens into the facility. DJJ has roughly 100 teens “behind the wire” at Broad River, Reid said, down from more than 400 in the mid-2000s. While he says the shift is due to better intervention for teens with mental illness or lesser offenses, it also means those inmates being kept at the facility are now more likely to be violent or gang members.
DJJ Director Sylvia Murray told lawmakers about a third of the recommendations have been put into place since they were submitted in June. It would take about a year to put all into effect.