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'Dangerous tactics': Federal report details abuse of youth at South Carolina DJJ facility

A federal investigation into DJJ's Broad River Road Complex from 2017 to 2020 has now been made public. New leadership at the agency promises improvements.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new report by the United States Department of Justice details disturbing incidents at South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice after a years-long investigation into the Broad River Road Complex.

The findings describe excessive use of force by staff and unsafe conditions for the young people in custody. However, DJJ's new leader is promising change.

The investigation into the complex was from 2017 to 2020. Now in April 2022, the Department and SCDJJ have come to a voluntary settlement on the matter, making the findings from the federal investigation public. 

In addition, SCDJJ came under fire last year following a state-level legislative investigation. The review by South Carolina's Legislative Audit Council found that facilities were understaffed and unsafe.

In June 2021, employees protested conditions at the Broad River Road Complex in Columbia by walking out of work. Then, former director Freddie Pough stepped down in September 2021.

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice has released its findings from its investigation years prior. The report says, "we reviewed hundreds of uses of force spanning from 2017 to early 2020. The information showed officers using dangerous tactics on the young people at BRRC, often engaging them even when they were not violent or threatening.”

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The new, interim director Eden Hendrick told News19 that the evidence in the report, "are horrifying things to even think about."

DOJ said in the report that it found staff at Broad River Road failed to keep youth safe and used excessive force when unnecessary.

Some examples of excessive use of force detailed in the document were: Staff hog-tying a boy with handcuffs, putting a boy in a chokehold, breaking a child’s arm, and biting a girl in the face during an officer and juvenile fight. 

Hendrick said the incidents happened before she was with the agency and called them, "awful, terrible, and troublesome.” 

She added that officials immediately began working with DOJ to remedy issues before she took over. One issue that's been addressed is updating the facility's surveillance system.

“The youth and the staff knew where the blind spots were. And they knew that there was a better chance of the camera system not capturing them than actually capturing them," explained Hendrick about the outdated technology. "So, by putting in this camera system in place, that is state of the art - top of the technology - is really going to change the way we operate.”

News19 asked Hendrick about how abusive staff is handled. Hendrick said she has no tolerance for this behavior, and she'd rather have one good officer versus 10 bad ones. This is a dilemma the agency is facing, as it struggles with being severely understaffed. “It's really important not only just to hire people, but it's important to hire people who have the right mindset and have the right idea,” said Hendrick.

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Hendrick told News19 that the agency is working to change the use of force policy and will soon start new training programs for staff. 

Senator Gerald Malloy also told News19 he hopes to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system with legislation he’s been working on for years. 

“It just would limit removal of children from the community and punitive care of juvenile justice," Malloy explained about the bill. 

It aims to keep children out of the system and would limit the isolation of juveniles. His bill didn’t meet the crossover deadline this session, but he hopes it still has a chance to pass this year.

Director Hendrick added that DJJ is working to change its solitary confinement policies and asserted that the use of isolation has drastically declined since she took over.

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