‘Shawshank for children’: SC juvenile justice facilities face increasing criticism

Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 1, 2021 at 7:57 PM EDT
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RIDGEVILLE, S.C. (WCSC) - Across from farmland and trees in rural Dorchester County, a complex surrounded by barbed wire sits on the side of a two-lane road. Inside this Ridgeville building, children from more than a dozen Lowcountry counties who are beginning their stay in South Carolina’s juvenile justice system are confined for up to 45 days.

“It really becomes like what I call Shawshank for children in these places,” Charleston attorney Daniel Boles said.

Despite its appearance and location next to the Lieber Correctional Institution, this facility, which is known as the Coastal Regional Evaluation Center, is not a prison.

“These facilities are not for punishment,” Boles stated. “They are supposed to help children to get better. They’re supposed to rehabilitate them.”

In 2018, one of Boles’ clients was being held at the Coastal Regional Evaluation Center when he was attacked by other detainees, according to a lawsuit. After the alleged attack, Boles says his client was not found for half an hour after another detainee alerted a guard to his client’s distress.

“He was exhibiting symptoms of someone with a serious head injury,” Boles said. “Throwing up. He was bleeding out of his ears. I’m not a doctor, but to me, those are things I recognize even as a lay person as indicative as a head injury.”

However, according to Boles, an ambulance was not called to the center. Instead, he says his client was shackled and driven in a van to Summerville Medical Center, before medical personnel flew him to the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital for serious head trauma and a fractured skull.

The Coastal Regional Evaluation Center is operated by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, which later settled the lawsuit Boles filed in connection with the alleged assault for $240,000.

Boles represents several other clients against DJJ, including for sexual assault and excessive isolation claims.

He believes some children come out of the DJJ system in worse mental and physical shape than when they entered it.

“There is no dollar amount,” Boles said. “They’d prefer to have a time machine and go back and unlive it.”

DJJ has been the subject of recent state hearings in response to audits exposing continued turmoil inside the department’s facilities throughout South Carolina. Senator Katrina Shealy is one of several lawmakers who have questioned DJJ officials at the hearings.

“I volunteered at the DJJ for 10 years before I became a senator,” Shealy said. “I’ve seen it good, and I’ve seen it terrible. This is terrible. This is the worst I’ve ever seen it in 20 years.”

Some of the concerns that have recently been raised about DJJ include low pay and long hours for frontline employees and the use of isolation as punishment for children in custody. However, allegations of this sort had already been surfacing against the department for years.

A report created in 2017 by an organization that is now known as Disability Rights South Carolina said that DJJ’s evaluation centers are “effectively jails by another name” and noted that on some days, the percentage of children held in isolation at DJJ’s Broad River Road Complex in Columbia exceeded 20 percent.

“Being in lock-up makes me feel suicidal because I’m claustrophobic,” one child who had been in isolation described in the report, adding that painted windows blocked sunlight from reaching inside and that there was no time for school or socializing.

Another child serving time in DJJ for petty larceny described being sexually assaulted by another juvenile, stating in the report that “it feels like I am being treated like an animal and a slave.”

The 2017 report included a list of seven suggestions that could be made to improve the DJJ system, but Beth Franco of Disability Rights South Carolina says that changes are still needed now.

“As a parent, if I had a child suffering with mental illness and I knew my child needed treatment and appropriate placement, I would not want my child at the DJJ,” Franco said. “These children are being traumatized even more.”

Franco is calling for the creation of a secure no-reject psychiatric treatment facility for mentally ill children who have been sentenced by family court judges.

“This would be tied to a continuum so that when these children leave that treatment facility and are going back into their communities, there’s a continuum wrap-around intensive mental health services for them and their families,” she explained.

In response to a list of questions regarding matters such as the current use of isolation rooms in their facilities, DJJ asked that a formal request be submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. A department attorney emailed Live 5 News Thursday to provide some information and tell us the rest is in-progress.

This week, the South Carolina Senate voted to declare that they do not have confidence in Freddie Pough, the DJJ director and former inspector general of the department. Shealy was one of the senators who voted in favor of the decision.

“It’s not going to get any better until they make some changes at the top,” Shealy said, adding that she is working on improving pay for frontline DJJ officers.

“It’s a no-win situation for the juveniles and the correction officers,” Shealy said. “If we don’t fix it, we’re just waiting on something bad to happen. Is that what it’s going to take? I hope not.”

Have you worked for the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice or known someone who spent time in one of their facilities? Is there something that you think Live 5 Investigates should be aware of? If so, call 843-402-5678 or send an email to tips@live5news.com.

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