SC juvenile prison director promises to improve conditions

JEFFREY COLLINS

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The leader of South Carolina's juvenile prisons promised Thursday to work with federal officials who determined young inmates civil rights are being violated because they aren't protected from fights and assaults and are put in isolation too often.

The U.S. Department of Justice ordered South Carolina juvenile prison officials to begin making seven changes in the Department of Juvenile Justice in less than two months or face a lawsuit, according to the report from the federal agency's Civil Rights Division released Wednesday.

The report said young inmates are forced to spend days or weeks in isolation for offenses as minor as playing cards or drawing tattoos on each other with ink pens. South Carolina officials also fail to get young prisoners mental health help when they threaten to harm or kill themselves, federal investigators said.

In 11 months ending last May, the Department of Juvenile Justice reported 134 fights and 71 assaults in a prison population of just over 100 inmates. The report said 99 injuries were reported, or a prisoner hurt an average of every third day.

Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough pointed out that the problems started before he took over the agency. But he also said Thursday all of that is unacceptable.

“Our young people should be provided all the necessary educational, rehabilitative, and vocational services to have a bright, prosperous future as citizens of South Carolina," Pough wrote in a lengthy statement. “Youth altercations and the excessive use of confinement are directly in conflict with our vision for DJJ and do not align with national best practices for long-term rehabilitation or reduce recidivism.”

Before the report was issued, Pough asked fo r more than $23 million in additional money in next year's budget for his agency to increase salaries, renovate jails and upgrade security cameras.

Some of the changes are simple. Federal investigators want South Carolina to severely limit the use of isolation cells, which are almost all concrete with a small window painted over so the inmate can't see outside. The inmates stay inside the isolation cell 23 hours a day and get little access to education or other programs, federal officials said.

DJJ is already setting up “relaxation rooms,” where inmates can voluntarily go and cool down, Pough said.

The report also said the state needs to develop a screening system to find juveniles most at risk of being attacked in prison and create a special housing unit for them with the same education and other opportunities.

South Carolina's main juvenile prison in Columbia is also poorly designed because guards cannot see the entire unit at one time and the prisoners are familiar with gaps both in the sight of the guards and surveillance cameras.

The report also calls for South Carolina to train its guards in juvenile prisons. Many do not know the proper way to restrain teenagers.

The staffing at the state's juvenile prisons needs to improve as well. From September 2017 to May 2019, the system lost 63 employees even though the inmate population rose slightly.

South Carolina juvenile prison officials also need to take better care of inmates who threaten suicide or harm themselves, the report said.

Currently, those inmates are often sent into isolation but given no mental health treatment. The report suggests getting those inmates to a psychiatric hospital for help.

Pough said DJJ has already received money to create a youth home for inmates with severe mental illnesses and will work with the state Department of Mental Health to find better solutions for all prisoners with mental heath problems.

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