S Carolina’s DJJ director resigns following critical report
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The director of South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice has resigned following a report that criticized her agency as still unprepared to prevent riots.
Gov. Henry McMaster accepted Sylvia Murray’s resignation Friday, his third day on the job.
“We recognize the critical importance of continuing to strengthen this agency, and we are committed to ensuring that is done in the safest and most effective way possible,” McMaster said.
In her short resignation letter, Murray said her “decision did not come easily,” but she’s leaving to “pursue other career options.”
State auditors said in a report released Thursday that DJJ remains understaffed; its officers are not properly trained; its security policies are outdated; and its police department is ineffective.
Murray told a House panel she disagreed with the findings.
“We feel we are actually doing a good job,” she told the panel during an hours-long meeting on the report. “We’ve been working very hard to bring DJJ to a different level.”
It was not the tone legislators wanted to hear. Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, told Murray he may suggest to McMaster that DJJ should be the first Cabinet post he considers replacing.
Murray’s quick resignation marks a sharp contrast from the way then-Gov. Nikki Haley dismissed legislators’ complaints against another understaffed agency involving children. In 2014, Haley refused for months to fire the Department of Social Services director amid hearings into children’s deaths. It took a no-confidence vote scheduled in the Senate for Lillian Koller to resign.
Legislators have been critical of DJJ since a string of gang-related riots at the main prison in 2015 and 2016 involving fires and property damage.
McMaster ascended to the governor’s office Tuesday evening, after the U.S. Senate confirmed Haley as United Nations ambassador. The former lieutenant governor was sworn in with two years remaining in Haley’s term. He is not expected to make broad administrative changes.
But the Legislative Audit Council report was a blow to a director who’s been trying to reassure legislators of her safety improvement efforts for a year.
Murray, who’s led the agency since January 2015, told legislators last year the agency’s increased security efforts included stricter discipline, installing glass that isn’t broken easily and sinks that can’t be ripped from walls, and housing juveniles based on risk. The agency also reported reducing contraband — from makeshift weapons to cellphones — through “head-to-toe” searches of juveniles after they meet with family and requiring staff to lock their car doors. It also began allowing its police force to carry pepper spray, but not correctional officers.
But the report said a survey of DJJ employees found many didn’t believe the changes “markedly increased” safety and security at the main prison.
Its findings included that DJJ isn’t complying with a 2003 federal law designed to prevent prison rape, which includes minimum juvenile-to-staff ratios, and there’s no evidence the agency has even determined what it needs to comply. It also found the agency failed to report the deaths of two juveniles, including one where foul play was suspected.
McMaster said DJJ’s inspector general, Freddie Pough, will serve as acting director. Pough was hired after the February 2016 riot that got legislators’ attention. On Thursday, legislators praised him for recognizing problems and giving forthright answers to their questions.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Eddie Tallon, said Thursday that DJJ seemed to be in great shape until 2014 but then began deteriorating.
“We need to find out why,” Tallon, R-Spartanburg, told DJJ staff. “Those kids behind the fence are not the best kids in the world, but we have an obligation to try to rehabilitate them and education them if we can, but we have to be stern about it. There’s a long way to go to fix the mess some of you have inherited.”