An audit of the agency which runs South Carolina’s juvenile prisons found undertrained staff and ineffective police who are not able to properly respond to violent incidents at the state’s main youth prison.
The Legislative Audit Council (LAC) report released Thursday documented gaps in Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) officer training and what auditors viewed as inadequate responses to deaths or other incidents in DJJ facilities. House lawmakers asked LAC to review the agency after a series of violent incidents, capped by a February 2016 riot that caused serious damage to several buildings at the DJJ holding facility in Columbia.
The report noted only slightly more than one out of every four correctional officers (28 percent) assigned to work at DJJ’s detention center in Columbia in October were certified by the state Criminal Justice Academy, even though they are required to attend the academy’s three-week basic detention training. DJJ staff said it was not aware of the requirement until 2014. While the agency offers in-house training for its corrections officers, that training has also never been approved by the academy.
“Unlike basic training provided at (the academy), DJJ’s training curriculum for juvenile correctional officers does not include defensive countermeasures, pressure point control, tactical handcuffing, or spontaneous knife defense,” the report noted. “We concluded that officers working with juveniles inside DJJ’s long-term, secured residential facilities need this level of training to protect juveniles and staff.”
During a House Oversight Committee meeting on Thursday in response to the audit, State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, was incredulous at the low rate of certification. “And these are the officers that are being employed to protect the folks in the Department of Juvenile Justice system?” he asked.
The report also recommended that DJJ eliminate its agency police force, which LAC called “ineffective and unnecessary.” DJJ officials say the 19-member police department, whose patrol officers are a separate division from the correctional officers in the DJJ facilities, has rebounded from inadequate levels from 2014-2016. The agency, which is supposed to get involved whenever residents violate criminal laws, did not even have a police chief during that span.
But audit manager Marcia Lindsay told committee members “We found the police department has not made any arrests in the last five years, has not been available on numerous occasions when called for assistance and has only one marked police car to provide a presence on campus.” She noted numerous occasions where staffing shortages meant an officer was not even on location at the Columbia facility during the overnight shift.
Lindsay noted South Carolina is the only state with its own police force for juvenile prisons. Other states rely on local law enforcement or separate state agencies.
DJJ Inspector General Freddie Pough, whose division includes the police department, defended its usefulness. Pough said officers will transport teens between facilities and patrol DJJ property, which he said could strain local law enforcement.
“Every time you ask a local deputy or police officer to respond to the Department of Juvenile Justice, that’s taking away from a citizen who could use that county deputy or city police officer,” he told the House panel.
Members of the committee also questioned a teen’s death at a DJJ-sponsored wilderness camp Camp Sandhills in 2015. The Chesterfield County coroner ruled at the time that the death was due to natural causes. However, LAC auditor Kevin Ryan said another teen at the camp later indicated foul play may have been involved. Ryan said there was no evidence the agency followed up or called state police to reopen the investigation.
“We were provided information that contained some email communications, some maps to the camp, printouts and copies of some policies and that was it,” he told the panel. “Nothing that we considered to be investigative paperwork.”
Pough said DJJ staff at the time believed the accusations went against the coroner’s findings and did not take the claims seriously. The agency said a state law requiring notification did not apply because the death did not occur at a “state correctional facility,” but at a private camp.
The report said DJJ also could not prove that counselors and teachers at wilderness camps have the proper credentials required by state law.
Legislators were appalled at the extent of problems inside the agency. “This is almost overwhelming to read and hear. I’m sorry. We’re failing these kids,” State Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Summerville said.
“Things have got to change in this organization,” State Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said. “Hopefully they are changing… It just cannot continue like it is.”