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‘An Incredibly Dangerous Situation’: The Fight To Fix South Carolina’s Juvenile Prisons Continues

“The gravity of the situation is so severe.”

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On Wednesday, lawmakers continued to review a disturbing audit on the imploding disaster at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ).

Because a recent S.C. Legislative Audit Council (SCLAC) found so many major problems at the SCDJJ, it took two hearings for lawmakers to fully review the audit report.

To recap, the audit provides evidence of what sources have been telling FITSNews for years — SCDJJ is spiraling out of control as the number of security officers decreases and the number of violent incidents climbs.

The audit is clear, SCDJJ director Freddie Pough – who was hand-picked by governor Henry McMaster to fix the troubled agency — isn’t doing the job.


In the joint subcommittee meeting Wednesday morning, SCLAC deputy director Marcia Lindsay first addressed some concerning comments made by Pough in the State Newspaper’s recent report. Pough claimed the audit was “incomplete and often inaccurate.”

According to auditors, SCDJJ officials were given 10 days to provide factual evidence disputing the claims made in the report. Then, SCDJJ officials gave the SCLAC 703 pages of documents that they believed provided proof to debunk the allegations — which were thoroughly reviewed by the auditors.

“I personally read all 703 pages and the DJJ basically provided very little actual documentation, and/ or evidence that warranted changes to our report,” Lindsay said. “We considered every single page that they provided. Instead, the agency disagreed that we observed certain things and disagreed that staff had indeed told us certain things.”

To be clear, it sounds like SCDJJ officials struggled to separate facts from opinions and were attempting to bend the truth so the report was less scathingwhich is very concerning.

While the report contained damning information on the SCDJJ — one of the most troubling accusations was that SCDJJ leaders falsified records on sexual assault reports and downplayed the severity of gang-related violence in incident reports.

Senators who reviewed the audit last month were not only alarmed that the SCDJJ was mismanaged — they were concerned officials might have committed crimes.

Two weeks ago, Six South Carolina senators sent a letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson asking his office to investigate possible criminal activity among SCDJJ officials.

Staffing Problems

In Wednesday’s hearing, Lindsay said that most of SCDJJ’s problems are caused by a lack of investment in security.

“If you don’t have security in place, everything else falls apart and can’t be done correctly,” she said. “So it’s important for them to spend the money that they have in the best way possible.”

Pough has been called out for mismanaging the SCDJJ after he gave big raises to higher-up workers while guards — who are essential for safety — are forced to work long hours for low wages.

Pough’s raises to higher-income staff could have been used to provide a 14 percent pay increase for more than 100 entry-level correctional guards – frontline workers whose salaries start as low as $28,000 a year, auditors concluded.

In other words — there is plenty of money right now for SCDJJ to fix these problems, but Pough appears to be giving the money to bureaucrats instead of frontline workers who could actually help the broken system.

Since 2016, the SCDJJ has lost about 32 percent of its security staff members, according to the audit.

During that same time period, violence in SCDJJ facilities has increased by 42 percent.

In April 2020, security footage captured a group of about 10 inmates breaking into a SCDJJ pod, locking it down, and completely trashing it.

Several SCDJJ frontline workers told us that they often work 24-hour shifts because the staffing shortage is so severe.

“I can tell you this is an incredibly dangerous situation to put both staff and juveniles in,” an SCDJJ employee said. “As staff, we aren’t able to function working that long.”

According to the audit, SCDJJ was failing on all fronts when it comes to hiring and managing employees. In Wednesday’s hearing, Lindsay said the agency has struggled to find employees for years, yet didn’t bother to hire recruiters.

SCDJJ doesn’t appear to be running a very tight ship with the officers they are keeping around, either.

“We found that DJJ is relying on officers with multiple disciplinary actions, demonstrating a history of reckless or indifferent behavior towards juvenile safety to maintain security at its facilities,” Lindsay said.

Escalating Danger

Ths SCDJJ’s inability to keep qualified frontline workers employed constantly compromises safety at facilities.

“It seems, at this point, that at least one staff quits every one to two weeks. In some cases, they will walk out of the unit leaving juveniles unattended,” a worker at the Broad River Road Complex (BRRC) in Columbia, S.C told FITSNews.

Several workers told us that the BRRC is completely out of control. Last week, three violent incidents occured within 24 hours at the facility.

In December 2019, four girls were allegedly sexually assaulted by male inmates at Midlands Evaluation Center.

“DJJ’s internal investigation into this incident found that it was caused, in part, because supervisory security staff were assisting with regular juvenile transport, and were therefore unaware of the current locations of other juveniles in the facility,” the report said.

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Several SCDJJ workers who spoke with FITSNews said they were constantly in fear for their safety and the kids’ safety while at work.

“Someone is going to get killed if they don’t do something soon,” another SCDJJ employee told us.

In fact, 57 percent of SCDJJ workers said they didn’t feel say at work — a large increase to 2017 when 30 percent of staff said they were worried about the safety.”

“The gravity of the situation is so severe, because staff is responsible for the well-being of the kids,” a BRRC worker told us. “Because it is so poorly staffed, these kids are not getting the adequate care that they need. Sometimes if a kid is injured or feeling suicidal, it could take a couple hours before they are seen by medical staff. And if a juvenile is feeling suicidal, they are placed in Laurel Unit on lockdown. To say that the staffing situation is at a dangerous level is an understatement.”

Lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing understood the urgency of the matter and planned to meet again in the coming weeks to question SCJJJ officials.

“Our job is to protect the children and the staff at DJJ,” S.C. Senator Katrina Shealy, said. “Everybody’s worried about management and (saying) that we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but there are a lot of children out there and y’all need to be thinking about them and quit worrying about management. Think about the staff and their safety…. That’s what I’m worried about.”

In the next meeting, senators will call witnesses — including Pough — who could be asked to resign.

Stay tuned…

Click here to read the full audit…

FITSNews will continue to shine a light on the problems at SCDJJ —the agency has been tasked with performing a core function of government – a key part of the broader criminal justice system that includes law enforcement, courts and corrections.

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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. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].

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