By The Associated Press and Robert Kittle
A corrections officer at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice says gangs are strong inside the youth prison, which has led to three riots in the last eight months. Catherine McKnight told a House committee investigating problems at DJJ that if the things don’t improve children and staffers could be killed.
DJJ officials say a disturbance on Feb. 26 started when several juveniles jumped a rival gang leader during a Black History Month ceremony. Five juveniles have been charged as adults for their roles in the riot. Officials say one inmate started a fire, and then at least two others broke into a girls’ dorm and tried to sexually assault some of the girls there. Officials say the juveniles broke windows, tore sinks off the walls, damaged vehicles outside, and one juvenile got into a vehicle and tried to run over someone.
DJJ Director Sylvia Murray told lawmakers that the agency hasn’t had a police chief in almost three years and hasn’t had a gang intervention specialist in a year. But she says DJJ is taking steps to better protect prisoners and staff, including implementing stricter discipline, installing sinks that can’t be ripped from walls, and housing juveniles based on risk.
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, chairman of the House panel that heard the testimony, says, “The most disappointing part is that we don’t seem to be doing a good job of protecting children from harm when they’re in our custody. How can we not have a police chief? How can a facility that has a gang problem not have a gang intervention specialist? It’s just crazy.”
That panel plans to have another hearing next Wednesday. The committee has already asked the Legislative Audit Council to look into DJJ’s operations and finances.