The director of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice laid out Tuesday what changes the agency has made since two recent riots. Director Sylvia Murray and other DJJ officials testified in front of a special state Senate committee that’s investigating the agency.
There was a riot in December, but the most serious and most recent riot was on February 26th at the agency’s facility in Columbia, where it houses the most dangerous juveniles. Juveniles tore up furniture, broke sinks off of walls, and used the sinks, furniture, and fire extinguishers to break windows and do other damage. They also broke out of their dorms and set toilet paper fires inside them.
Elwood Sessions, administrator of DJJ’s Broad River Road facility, told senators he had just left work when he heard about the disturbance, so he immediately went back. There was a fire truck trying to get in. “I denied the fire truck entry into the Broad River Road complex because we had had reports that the juveniles were planning to try to set fires to steal the fire truck and drive through the gate,” he told senators.
Some of the juveniles broke windows to get into a control room, found a staff member’s purse, grabbed her car key and then went out to the parking lot. Sessions says once they were in the car, staff members tried to stop them. “The juveniles inside the vehicle attempted to run down the staff. They jumped the curb and the car became disabled on a shrubbery in the middle of our courtyard,” he said.
Fourteen juveniles have been charged as adults for various crimes during the riot. They’re all in Richland County’s adult jail now instead of DJJ.
Murray told senators the agency has replaced windows with shatterproof glass and has bolted down furniture and plumbing fixtures. She also reversed a previous policy that made the juvenile prison more like a dorm and less like a jail.
“We have installed more metal detectors, because we’ve had a problem with contraband in our agency, so we’ve installed the metal detectors. We’ve also gone to where cars are searched when you come in through our premises,” she told senators.
She said part of the problem is that DJJ has 45 vacancies for correctional officers behind the fences, and with a starting salary of about $25,500 it’s difficult to fill those positions. The tentative state budget for next year includes a raise for juvenile correctional officers to $27,000, but Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, says that’s probably still not enough to attract enough good officers. “We don’t pay these officers enough and so it was almost like a volcano getting ready to erupt, and that’s what happened that night in February,” he said after Tuesday’s hearing.
He’s also worried about the fact that 60 percent of the officers are female and 92 percent of the juvenile offenders are male, and the officers do not carry any kind of weapons.
He’s also got another concern. “I want to know, how can we lower recidivism? I’ve seen studies that say we have some of the highest recidivism in the nation, so these kids, unfortunately, they just graduate to the Department of Corrections. That’s not a great path. We need to do more to try to rehabilitate and educate them and keep them from coming back into the corrections system. Number one it’ll be better for the kid, and number two it’ll be less costly for the taxpayer,” he says.
During the meeting, Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said one reason conditions inside DJJ have gotten worse could be sentencing reform laws. “The places behind the wall, behind the wire, are going to continue to get more dangerous because only those who are the most violent are going to be sentenced by the court to go behind the wall or behind the wire,” he said.
The committee plans to have more hearings on DJJ and wants the director to come back with a better idea of what the agency needs. “We want y’all to come tell us what it’s going to take to prevent this from ever happening again, because we are concerned,” Sen. Lourie told Murray.