COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina juvenile prison violates the civil rights of its young inmates by failing to protect them from fights, forcing them to spend days or weeks in isolation for minor offenses and failing to get them mental health when they threaten to harm or kill themselves, federal investigators said.
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.
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.
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.
The report praised the Department of Juvenile Justice for working with federal officials as they reviewed the problems. DJJ Director Freddie Pough didn't get the report until late Wednesday afternoon and planned to discuss it Thursday, agency spokesman Jarid Munsch said.
Before the report was issued, Pough asked for 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 found South Carolina officials send juvenile inmates to isolation for minor offenses like using profanity, tattooing another inmate with an regular ink pen or playing cards.
Isolation cells 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.
"Everything in the room is made of concrete and steel; steel doors provide entrance in and out of the cell and the door only has a slot for the officer to slide a tray of food to the youth and to communicate with them," the Justice Department wrote in its report.
The report asks South Carolina officials to stop sending inmates to isolation for minor misbehavior and to establish cool-down rooms as a short-term option to get inmates back into the general population.
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 the gaps in both the sight of the guards and surveillance cameras.
"For instance, an incident video showed several youth chasing another youth into the sleeping area on the farthest end of the pod. Apparently, the officer could not see that the youth were fighting because he did not intervene until all of the youth in the pod crowded around the area," the report said.
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.