Federal authorities have opened investigation into the state Department of Juvenile Justice

The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the state Department of Juvenile Justice. File/Staff

The federal government has opened a formal investigation into the state Department of Juvenile Justice that will include probing the evaluation and incarceration of youth with disabilities, multiple sources confirmed.

The investigation is being handled by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, sources told The Post and Courier. About 40 percent of juveniles sent to DJJ's Columbia detention center qualify for special education services. 

Child advocates across the state have pressed for an investigation for at least two years, said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU in South Carolina. An investigation is critical to ensure the safety of staff and juveniles involved in more than 15,000 cases sent to DJJ each year, Dunn said. About 2,000 youth are locked up annually in its detention center alone.

“This is a system that really needs assistance,” Dunn said. “It seems like we have avoided an objective evaluation of the place.” 

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the investigation. DJJ officials promised to cooperate fully.

"I cannot discuss a pending investigation into our agency. I can tell you we continue to be fully transparent and accountable. DJJ respects and values the safety and rights of its juveniles," DJJ spokesman Patrick Montgomery said in a statement. 

Gov. Henry McMaster's office also wouldn't comment on the investigation. However, he and DJJ Acting Director Freddie Pough "are both committed to providing a safe and secure environment for the rehabilitation of juveniles in DJJ’s care. There is absolutely no tolerance for the mistreatment of juveniles under Director Pough’s leadership, and he will continue to lead the agency with complete transparency and accountability,” spokesman Brian Symmes said in a statement. 

The news comes less than a week after The Post and Courier published an investigation into DJJ's wilderness camps that exposed a web of secrecy that shrouds deaths and assaults at the camps and the agency's failure to track them. 

Based on descriptions of the federal investigation that sources provided the newspaper, applicable statutes could include the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the rights of people confined in correctional facilities and other institutions.

Justice officials indicated to Dunn that they will look at security issues at DJJ’s Broad River Road prison and at centers where thousands of youth are locked up each year to undergo court-ordered evaluations, she said. That likely will include probing the number of youth placed in solitary confinement and the length of time they spend there, something the ACLU has challenged for years, Dunn said. 

“It can cause irreparable harm,” Dunn said. “But it’s been used pretty commonly as a sort of shock incarceration.”

The probe comes after the state’s Legislative Audit Council issued a sharp rebuke of DJJ earlier this year. In their report, auditors wrote that they "did not find convincing evidence that DJJ is adequately prepared to respond to major disturbances in its facilities."

They also faulted DJJ for not investigating allegations of foul play after a teenager died at one of its wilderness camps, among other criticisms.

DJJ’s director resigned the next day. The agency, which has 1,400 employees and a $120 million budget, remains without a permanent director.

The auditors’ report came after riots at DJJ’s main prison in 2015 and 2016 raised lawmakers’ alarm. The 2016 melee led to the arrests of several juveniles on charges including sexual assault and attempted murder.

However, DJJ then made a number of changes. Symmes noted that agency officials have implemented 91 percent of the auditors' recommendations.

They also added a quick response team inside the detention center to keep violent incidents from escalating along with a range of security measures to the sprawling 220-acre complex in Columbia. A building for female offenders also now sits behind its own fence with a locked gate after a marauding boy assaulted a girl during the 2016 riot.

DJJ staff replaced glass in the buildings with Plexiglas and added razor wire to the walls of dorm courtyards so youth couldn't get onto the roofs. They bolted furniture to the floors, removed planters and added solid doors so youth couldn’t break out windows again.

However, the agency still faces challenges. A former prison supervisor recently pleaded guilty to two counts of deprivation of civil rights after ordering guards to hog-tie two inmates because they made too much noise. She faces up to 10 years in prison on each count when she is sentenced.

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Contact Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."

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