SC juvenile prisons under scrutiny by lawmakers again

April 23, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s beleaguered juvenile prisons are once again under scrutiny by lawmakers after a scathing government audit this month found a failure to maintain adequate security staffing, an uptick in violence and many other deep-rooted problems.

Lawmakers have been criticizing the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees juvenile prisons in the state, for years. The recent report, produced by the Legislative Audit Council, is aimed at tracking any improvements made by the agency following an earlier audit in 2017.

Instead, auditors uncovered issues ranging from a significant increase in acts of violence among youths and between juveniles and staff, to students missing GED testing because they were locked up in isolation units. Staffing and transportation shortages meant some youths weren’t receiving adequate and timely medical care. And though officials told lawmakers they had put in place nearly all of the recommendations from the 2017 audit, the follow-up investigation found the agency had actually implemented only half of them.

ADVERTISEMENT

A group of state senators called this week for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to look into whether any improper or criminal conduct has occurred at the agency.

“We were shocked to hear many of the disturbing findings, ranging from potentially covering up instances of sexual assault and abuse to falsifying records and misuse of funds,” the six-member panel of senators from the Corrections and Penology Committee wrote in the Thursday letter.

Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the agency intends to thoroughly review the audit report and then will decide whether to conduct a further investigation.

The senators made the request a day after their initial hearing on the report Wednesday. Legislative Audit Council Deputy Director Marcia Lindsay testified that Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough wrote an email telling staffers to report any interactions with auditors back to an agency employee. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” Lindsay said.

“The staff was very upset and concerned about retaliation for talking with us,” she added.

In a letter responding to the audit, Pough wrote that the agency had already identified and begun to correct many of the recommendations in the report. He also wrote that the agency had provided auditors with more than 700 pages of documentation identifying “incorrect factual assertions, failures to consider pertinent information, and faulty and speculative conclusions contained in the report.”

ADVERTISEMENT

As senators met to review the audit Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster stood next to Pough at the agency’s main Broad River Road Complex to announce a roughly $12 million allocation in coronavirus pandemic relief funds to the agency.

Those dollars came out of a pot of $48 million in federal education dollars the governor can spend at his discretion. The $12 million will go toward expanding juvenile delinquency prevention initiatives, including funds for therapy, mentoring and after-school programs.

“What we’re speaking of today is investing in our young people outside the fence, so they don’t come inside the fence,” McMaster said Wednesday.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Dick Harpootlian decried the agency’s response to the audit.

“I don’t believe the current leadership is adequate, and the governor going out there yesterday and commending him on the job he’s doing is an absolute insult and slap in the face of every child in need out there,” Harpootlian said.

The federal government sued South Carolina over conditions at its juvenile prisons in the 1990s, and the state didn’t convince officials that conditions had improved until 2003.

In recent years, legislators have been critical of the agency since a string of gang-related riots at the main prison in 2015 and 2016 that resulted in fires and property damage. A subsequent 2017 state audit led to the resignation of then-director Sylvia Murray.

Last year, federal investigators found the agency was violating the civil rights of incarcerated youths, from failing to train staff to using “punitive, prolonged” isolation units that left youths confined to small, dark cells for 23 hours a day.

The U.S. Department of Justice then ordered juvenile prison officials to begin making changes in less than two months or face a lawsuit. At the time, Pough promised to improve facility conditions, though he noted those problems had been present since before he took charge.