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Abuse, Isolation, Violence: What Justice Department Found Unconstitutional At SC Teen Detention Center

The DOJ released an 18-page report detailing their investigation..

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On Wednesday, this news outlet was first to report the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that conditions at the Broad River Road Complex (BRRC) in Columbia, South Carolina, violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Yesterday, the DOJ released an 18-page report detailing the level of the violence, abuse and harsh conditions at the Columbia facility housing an average of over 100 teens who are all under 17-years old.

In a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster, whose administration oversees the Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ), assistant attorney general Eric Dreiband said the DOJ’s extensive investigation found that “South Carolina fails to keep youth reasonably safe from youth-on-youth violence at the BRRC.”

“SCDJJ, through its failure to train its staff, implement effective behavior management tools, and establish key safety features in its physical plant, seriously harms youth or places them at substantial risk of serious harm from other youth,” the letter said. “Additionally, SCDJJ seriously harms youth by using isolation for punitive rather than legitimate purposes and by placing youth in isolation for lengthy periods.”

The Attorney General could file a lawsuit if these conditions are not corrected within 49 days, according to the letter. However, Dreiband wrote they hope “to resolve this matter through a more cooperative approach.”

High rates of youth violence

The report contained shocking numbers on youth violence in the BRRC. In an 11-month timeframe, there were:

  • 134 fights
  • 71 assaults
  • 99 injuries from violence
  • Fights and assaults 2 of every 3 days (average)

Videos, incident reports, and data sets show the level of physical harm and injuries described in the reports: teens struck in the face, grabbed by the genitals, knocked to the ground, punched, kicked, etc.

The investigation found that violence at BRRC occurred more frequently compared to other youth detention facilities.

The report details graphic incidents of violence in which the guards failed to protect the youth. 

In one November 2017 case, video surveillance showed an officer failing to protect a teenager “A.B.” from “four attacks by groups of youth in his pod over three hours,” the report said.

The video showed groups of teenagers drag A.B. into a bedroom cubicle  and repeatedly assault him while the officer —who was without sight and sound of the incident — “remained seated” and didn’t do anything to stop the attackers, according to the report.

Weeks later, A.B.’s grandmother complained to the DJJ saying “he could barely chew because he had been hit in the jaw.”

SCDJJ’s response?

They placed A.B. in isolation for weeks and then sent him back to the same unit he was assaulted in, the report said.

“This response was insufficient to protect A.B. from harm and is an example of DJJ’s inadequate response to juvenile assaults that contribute to a pattern of serious harm to youth,” the report says. 

Isolation abuse

Investigators found several major issues with how the SCDJJ used solitary confinement for illegitimate reasons. When the teenagers are placed in isolation, they are alone in an 8-by-8 cell made out of concrete and steel for 23 hours a day with no windows.

According to SCDJJ rules, officers are only allowed to isolate teen inmates when they pose a pose a threat to safety or create a risk of harm to others.

However, investigators found that a large number of teenagers at the facility were isolated for minor behaviors such as: masturbating in their own beds, not following directors or using profanity toward officers, according to the report.

Investigators also found Broad River Road Complex teenagers are isolated frequently and for long periods of time:

  • SCDJJ isolated 232 youth at least once in 2017.
  • Four teenagers were isolated over 141 days within a two-year time frame.
  • In a 10-month period, BRRC used isolation 1044 times. 

Treatment of mentally ill teens

Department of Justice investigators discovered serious violations in regards to how teenagers with mental health problems were treated at the BRRC.

Under policy, BRRC should to identify teenagers with serious mental illness and transfer them to a treatment facility.

“Of the 117 young people with serious mental illness who entered BRRC in 2017, around 75 of them were never transferred to a psychiatric residential treatment facility,” the DOJ report said.

Not only did they not transfer the teenagers with serious mental health issues, but investigators found SCDJJ officers sometimes punished them for suicidal behavior.

At least 45 times, SCDJJ officials placed teens in isolation under suicide watch. 

“The failure of SCDJJ to establish alternatives to placement for youth who need protective custody, who are suicidal, or who are self-harming also contributes to the unconstitutional use of isolation,” the report said. 

Security issues

Staffing and security problems were reoccurring themes throughout this report. While inmate population has slightly decreased at BRCC over the last few years, staffing has decreased by 27 percent — from 235 in 2017 to 172 in 2019.

Investigators found major failures with how officers were trained, specifically citing a 2017 report that determined the SCDJJ officers were “unfamiliar with basic security procedures.” 

On top of the issues with staffing, investigators discovered there were major blind spots in the security cameras of the facility that were enabling violence to take place without staff noticing, according to the report.

DOJ officials outlined a 7-step process for SCDJJ to implement and correct the constitutional violations.

“We look forward to working cooperatively with South Carolina to remedy these violations,” the DOJ report concluded.

FITSNews will continue to report on this story and this investigation. Stay Tuned.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mandy Matney

Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an award-winning journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].

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