COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) – South Carolina Inspector General Patrick Maley gave his report Thursday to a joint committee of state senators and House members investigating problems at the Department of Juvenile Justice. Maley started investigating the agency in March, after there were three riots at DJJ from September 2015 until February 2016.
He interviewed 31 DJJ employees, under oath. He asked them to assess the threat level to staff and the juveniles there, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest threat. The employees say the average threat level to staff is 4.3, while to juveniles it’s 3.7.
He found five main problems:
1. Lack of consequences for juveniles
2. Systemic gang mentality
3. Chronic verbal abuse of staff
4. Low security morale and problematic engagement with juveniles
5. Heightened safety threat of physical altercation
He told lawmakers, “The staff generally attributed these increased safety issues to the well-intended new strategy of a more therapeutic approach of dealing with juveniles behind the fence.”
He said the plan was good, but it wasn’t implemented effectively and the person who was ultimately responsible for that has been fired. DJJ has since changed its strategy and is segregating the juveniles based on their behavior and risk.
One question state lawmakers want answered is what the proper staffing level is for juvenile corrections officers. DJJ used to have about 400 juveniles behind the fences at its Broad River Road facility in Columbia, but now has about 100, with about the same number of guards as before.
“I was shocked at the number of guards it takes to monitor these kids,” he said. “I mean, really, you’ve got a pod of 30 and they want nine people to watch 30 kids. And then when they go to school, there’s 100 kids there and they want 30 or 40 to watch them. So it’s almost like, do you really need that many, or is your core problem you don’t have sufficient, what I would say, control and discipline and you’re compensating for that mistake with just more bodies?”
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said, “The children that are there now are the worst of the worst children. That’s why you probably have nine people watching 30 kids and you have 30 people watching 100 kids.”
They also discussed the fact that officers work 12-hour shifts. Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, says, “I think 12-hour shifts for guards can lend itself to fatigue, can lend itself to low morale, can lend itself to just being worn out at the end of the day and, you know, bad things can happen if our guards aren’t sharp and on the ball.”
State lawmakers have put money into next year’s budget to give DJJ officers a raise of $1,500 a year. But Maley says the problem is more complex than just pay. “Through the interviews that people told us, when it comes to their training, they’re not even provided defensive tactics or mechanisms to gain control of a juvenile, so I think those physical skills, or at least physical confidence, has to be added back, because they will have to go hands-on with these kids and not having them trained, I think, creates a lot of issues.”
Overall, though, Maley praised DJJ, saying the agency is taking steps to regain control and address its problems. The joint committee plans an additional hearing, likely next week.