It is no secret the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ) has devolved into a dystopian Thunderdome under governor Henry McMaster’s “leadership.” This agency – which first descended into chaos under former governor Nikki Haley – has somehow managed to fling itself even further into the abyss over the last five years.
How did that happen?
Two words: Freddie Pough.
Hand-picked by McMaster in 2017 to turn this agency around, Pough has instead accelerated its collapse.
A report issued last February by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) exposed one of the agency’s fundamental problems: Chronic shortages of security staff which have created an environment which “seriously harms youth or places them at substantial risk of serious harm from other youth.”
These staffing shortages – which date back at least seven years – were documented in a report issued earlier this year by the S.C. Legislative Audit Council (SCLAC). That report concluded Pough has been wasting money that could have been spent hiring more guards (and paying them better salaries).
The result? According to the SCLAC report, SCDJJ has lost over 32 percent of its security staff since 2017 – while violence has increased by 42 percent at its facilities over the same time frame.
And things have only gotten worse “behind the wire” since then …
Literally every week over the past month, my news outlet has reported on harrowing tales from behind the walls of SCDJJ’s notoriously understaffed Broad River Road Complex (BRCC). According to my sources, rapes and beatings are commonplace at this facility – a troubling case study in what happens when a core function of government is mismanaged.
Two weeks ago, I reported exclusively on an alleged rape and attempted suicide involving a female juvenile inmate at BRCC. After the attempted rape, the inmate “tried to hang herself,” a source familiar with the situation told me.
Around this same time, sources inside BRCC told me a group of juveniles broke into another building on campus – absconding with food, half a dozen laptops and multiple cell phones. As of this writing, only one laptop has been recovered. Elsewhere on campus that weekend, several juveniles reportedly killed a large turtle that had wandered onto the property from neighboring Harbison State Forest – smashing it against a cinderblock wall.
“They tore its guts and other vital organs out and threw them all over the place!” a witness told me. “Also they took bloody body parts from the dead creature and chased the security staff with them. This sick and depraved act on an innocent creature is animal cruelty!”
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Less than a week earlier, agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) were called to the facility to help quell a “disturbance” at BRCC. According to my sources, this “disturbance” was in reality a “full-blown riot.”
The week before this “disturbance?” A 16-year-old male juvenile inmate was beaten within an inch of his life by other inmates who were reportedly wielding a “metal-pole-like weapon.”
Where were SCDJJ security personnel when this transpired?
“They left me alone,” the young man said, per his attorney.
Last week, another violent incident allegedly took place. According to my sources, shortly after 4:30 p.m. EDT on September 3, 2021 a 17-year-old male juvenile inmate was allegedly “lynched” by as many as fifteen other juvenile inmates. The boy was “stomped and repeatedly kicked in the head face and body,” one source familiar with the situation told me.
“He was covered in blood and had shoe prints on his cheek and arms,” the source added.
After a brief hospitalization, the injured juvenile inmate was returned to SCDJJ’s infirmary.
“(The) youth reported there was not enough security to stop the other males from kicking him,” the source continued. “He state he felt they were going to hurt him really bad or (kill) him.”
The same male juvenile inmate was reportedly the victim of an attempted sexual assault.
“He is traumatized after all he has gone through at DJJ,” the source said.
Again, I do not blame the guards at SCDJJ for what is happening. Their ranks have thinned as a result of misappropriated resources, failed approaches and an overall lack of leadership from Pough and his staff. As a result of worsening staffing shortages, they are being forced to work shifts ranging anywhere from 24 to 36 hours inside dilapidated structures replete with urine-soaked, feces-stained cells – often in backed-up sewage.
No wonder so many of them have reached their limit …
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Still, the chaos worsens …
As I reported back in March of 2016, many of SCDJJ’s problems stem from its decision to adopt a so-called “Balanced And Restorative Justice” (BARJ) model of discipline in the hopes of creating “a more therapeutic environment” for its juvenile inmates.
According to a fact sheet released by the agency at the time (.pdf), the BARJ model is intended as “a response to crime that allows for active participation by victim, community, and offender in the justice process.”
“It is a values framework which recognizes that justice is best achieved by building, or re-building, relationships between crime victims, the community, and juvenile offenders,” the fact sheet continued.
Look, I get it. “Restorative justice” is a laudable concept. It is, in fact, one of the chief aims of the correctional system. It cannot supplant public safety, however – nor can attempts to achieve it endanger the safety of inmates entrusted to the care of our state’s correctional system (to say nothing of the guards, teachers, counselors and other staffers tasked with helping “restore” these juvenile inmates).
Unfortunately, this is exactly what has been happening.
“Since the inception of BARJ there has been a major increase in staff assaults (and) injuries and violent incidents,” a source inside the agency told me five years ago. “Under BARJ discipline is nonexistent which is why the juveniles have basically taken over.”
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(Via: S.C. Governor)
State lawmakers have renewed their focus on the crisis at SCDJJ in recent months, calling on McMaster (above, left) to fire Pough.
Not only is McMaster doubling down on his support of Pough, however, he is accosting lawmakers trying to hold him accountable. In fact, this recalcitrance may have drawn him an opponent in next spring’s “Republican” gubernatorial primary – with state senator Katrina Shealy announcing earlier this week she was “considering” challenging McMaster.
“I have supported the governor in many of his policy ideas but when it comes to the real people of South Carolina who need our help the most his ideas are failing them,” Shealy told me. “We are putting the wrong people in positions to protect our children, families and seniors – and it has become a fight every time we look for the right leadership in these positions.”
Much of the savagery “behind the wire” at SCDJJ has been exposed thanks to courageous sources – and thanks to advocates like Wendy Varner, who has organized a Facebook group entitled “Let the Walls Talk.” This group is comprised of concerned citizens like Varner who are demanding that Pough and his staff “be held accountable.”
Not surprisingly, Pough has done his best to limit the flow of information from his agency – including a September 2019 memo which sought to “coordinate” SCDJJ’s response to the recent legislative audit in the name of “efficiency and responsiveness.”
Really? To me, the memo comes off as an effort to conceal the myriad problems at the agency …
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Clearly, SCDJJ leaders did not want employees giving auditors an unvarnished assessment of the agency’s issues. Additionally, a more recent “confidentiality agreement” – which all SCDJJ employees are required to sign – instructs them to keep all agency information to themselves and “not disclose it to persons with in the agency who have no job-related need to know, or to persons outside the agency without proper authorization.”
The document further stipulates SCDJJ employees will not “at any time, directly or indirectly, orally or in any written or electronic form, disclose any confidential information” or remove such information from agency premises.
Violators of these policies will “be reported to management and if necessary, law enforcement.”
Certainly, such policies are not outside the norm for state agencies, but SCDJJ sources have told me Pough is using the documents to threaten employees with their jobs should they share information.
“SCDJJ employees are being threatened if they talk to anyone about anything,” one lawmaker who is helping investigate the agency told me. “It is a culture of secrecy.”
Indeed it is … in fact, Pough is currently under investigation for allegedly concealing details of violent incidents at SCDJJ, as well as for misappropriating funds and falsifying records, according to a letter sent to S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson back in April by multiple state senators.
For years, this news outlet has maintained a steady focus on the chronic problems at SCDJJ – which it will continue to do so until they are addressed. Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later, but both Haley and McMaster have clearly shown they are either unwilling or uninterested in implementing the necessary reforms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that St. Louis Cardinals’ bird lid pictured above).
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