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Parents, attorneys condemn Charleston County juvenile lockup: 'It's not a safe place'

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Out of sight, out of mind — that's how one parent described the Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center her daughter still has nightmares about.

The facility, built in 1967 and never renovated, is tucked away on Headquarters Road in North Charleston a few blocks from the county jail. Its cells are small, and children ages 12 to 16 may spend up to 22 hours a day in them. They don't go outside, parents and observers say. 

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office operates the center and has blueprints for a new $16 million facility officials hope to open in 2021. It would be beside the more modern Al Cannon Detention Center adult jail. For many in the community, that answer isn't enough after years of raising concerns that they say were never addressed.

“These kids feel like nobody really cares," said Annie Andrews, a Charleston County public defender who has had many clients at the Juvenile Detention Center.

Andrews said her office has asked for a solution and been told for more than 10 years that a new facility would be built.

In October 2018, jail administrators sent an email to attorneys and said they could come see the blueprints, but that meeting never materialized, Andrews said.

"It's such a frustrating answer to hear over and over again," Andrews said. 

Charleston County Detention Center Juvenile Annex

The Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center is located on Headquarters Road in North Charleston. Just weeks after a lawsuit claiming inhumane conditions for children at the juvenile center, the youths held there were moved down the road to the county jail. Brad Nettles/Staff

The facility holds juveniles in the pretrial phase — before a final hearing takes place. Many juveniles detained across the state are status offenders, meaning the crime they committed would not be illegal for an adult, such as truancy or running away from home.

At the center, Andrews said, the youths are treated like criminals, not children. Her juvenile clients have told her they may spend nearly all of their days confined to their cells, except for short recreation periods, a description mirrored by a corrections officer at the facility.

One teenager told her he "forgot what the outdoors smelled like" after not being allowed outside for 10 months, Andrews said.

The Sheriff's Office said juveniles spend five to seven hours a day outside their cells, whether for school, recreation or visitation. Juveniles go outdoors a few times a week, administrators said. Their account of conditions at the Juvenile Detention Center clashed with reports from attorneys, parents, observers and one of the center's corrections officers.

Parents of juveniles at the facility said they feel powerless to help their children, who may languish there for months.

"The adults in the adult jail are treated better than these kids," said Sebrina Washington.

Her son has been in the facility for more than seven months. She said he hasn't gone outside in that time and she worries his mental health issues are only growing worse due to the center's conditions. 

"Some nights, I don't even sleep knowing my son is in there, not knowing what's happening to him," Washington said. "It's not a safe place for these kids."

Unanswered complaints

Emails from attorneys to the Sheriff's Office list multiple complaints from their juvenile clients: A 12-year-old was put on lockdown for 48 hours for playing in the showers, they allege. A young girl didn't have access to an EpiPen for her allergies or the glasses she needed to see. Children were locked in solitary confinement for banging on their cell doors.

When the juveniles were briefly moved to the Al Cannon Detention Center during hurricane season in 2018, they didn't want to return to the juvenile facility, their attorneys told jail administrators.

"Appreciate the heads up," adult and juvenile detention administrator Chief Deputy Willis Beatty wrote in response to one 2018 email with detailed complaints; that exchange was obtained by The Post and Courier from one of the attorneys involved.

With limited space and resources, Sheriff's Office officials feel their hands are tied with how much they can do to improve conditions until the new facility is built. The juvenile center has failed inspections by the S.C. Department of Corrections for several years, with the same failures repeating year after year.

Beatty said there's no way to fix the problems brought up in inspections.

"The county is trying, but the building is so old that you patch one thing and another thing opens up," he said.

The roof is an ongoing problem, and guards must often place buckets to catch leaks.

This report shows that the juvenile facility was over capacity by at nine children on average at the time of a state inspection in 2018.

State law says that a juvenile facility must address issues within 90 days or be forced to close unless remaining open is in the public interest. Closing a facility is the "ultimate sanction," state corrections spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said.

The state is pinning its hope for reforms on a new facility.

The state's two other county juvenile detention centers, in Greenville and Richland counties, have not had similar violations in the past several years.

Charleston County Detention Center Juvenile Annex

Charleston County Sheriff's Department deputies keep watch over the common area of the now-closed Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center on Feb. 26, 2020. Brad Nettles/Staff

Small spaces, too many juveniles and not enough staff have led to a cramped, controlled environment for the children detained at the center. Its capacity is 26, but it often holds more. According to the 2018 inspection report, the juvenile center's high count was 59, over twice its capacity.

The new facility would have capacity for 72, Beatty said, with many of them in open-bay dormitories. He doesn't expect to meet that capacity.

Most juveniles are from Charleston County, but other counties including Dorchester, Berkeley and Colleton can pay $57 a day each for the facility to house their juvenile detainees. That will soon increase to $67 a day, Beatty said.

The cells at the center hold a metal bunk, a sink and a toilet. They do not have a desk, a chair, a hook or closet space, which state law requires. According to state law, that 80-square-foot room is meant to house one juvenile. But due to overcrowding, a cell may house three or four at a time, with some children sleeping on floors.

Juveniles are given a thin mattress, a mattress cover and a blanket. They've told their attorneys it can get cold. For several years, juveniles were not allowed to wear clothes except for undergarments in their cells because two youths had used their clothes to break out in 2016. That policy ended about a year ago, administrators said, though they deny it had any adverse effect on the children. 

Some punishments extend beyond just restricting a juvenile to his or her cell. Several people who visited the facility, including Andrews and a Department of Juvenile Justice probation officer, described a room that children called the "wet cell." Guards alternately described a "cool room" or "time-out room" where juveniles might be restricted for behavioral issues. 

Andrews, who saw the room, said it's a tiny utility closet with a concrete bench and a drain. Juveniles call it the "wet cell" because if the guards do not let them out, they're forced to urinate in the room. Several juveniles told their attorneys they were in the room for several hours or days, sometimes shackled, according to Andrews.

Beatty denied that the cell is in use and said no such room has been used for many years. 

Impossible problems

Beatty acknowledged that conditions at the center are "rough" due to the building's age. He's putting his hopes in a new facility, which he said will open in August 2021. A groundbreaking date has not yet been set.

Blueprints show the new Juvenile Center would have 72 beds, mostly in the open-bay style without individual cells, similar to what the Al Cannon Detention Center uses. The center would have four classrooms in the middle, the four open-bay dorms with 12 beds each and two recreation rooms surrounded by individual cells for children with behavioral issues. The new facility will have a medical bay and a nurse on duty 24 hours a day, Beatty said.

Despite the conditions, there are many benefits to having a county detention center for juveniles, Beatty said.

"The concept with juveniles is to keep them family-oriented. If one of our kids was in jail, we wouldn't want to drive to Columbia," he said.

Beatty's account of the juveniles' daily schedule differed from what attorneys, parents and a corrections officer described. According to Beatty, the children follow a Charleston County School District schedule on weekdays, along with two to three hours of recreation each day. Lockdown is from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., he said. 

"There's not enough space. We're very limited on what we can do," Beatty said. That's why the center does not offer programming or activities for the children, he said.

The recreation room has a television, as does a trailer that was added to house more youths. There's a small library and board games. In the small yard area, the basketball hoop has fallen over, but the children have access to balls, Beatty said. He said they go outside two to three times a week.

Charleston County Detention Center Juvenile Annex

Charleston County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Willis Beatty talks about the condition of the Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The roof above the library in the old building leaks during heavy rains. Brad Nettles/Staff

One corrections officer at the juvenile center, who asked to remain anonymous because he's not supposed to speak to the media, said staffing issues prevent officials from ever taking the children outside. He said they're out of their cells for three hours a day if they're in school, or without school, two hours. He described a "time-out" room for restricting juveniles.

The staff shortage means that building a new facility won't solve all the issues, the officer said. It's a struggle to maintain order with so few guards, he said, and that reality could be worsened with the open-bay style dormitories planned for the new detention center.

Staffing issues affect the entire detention center, Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Roger Antonio said, but the juvenile facility has a mandatory overtime program.

Several desks are set up in the recreation room for school, and there's an additional room where children can use Chromebooks for their schoolwork. The center has a partnership with Daniel Jenkins Academy, an alternative school in Charleston County School District. 

According to the school's principal, Tawayne Weems, two full-time teachers are assigned to the detention center, along with a special education teacher and a teacher's assistant. Juveniles are in classes for three hours a day, he said, placed into one of two sessions — in the morning from 7:30 to 11:30 or in the afternoon from 12:45 to 3:45. Weems said the teachers enjoy the role and that the students are usually very engaged.

Beatty is excited about the new facility, which he said is fully funded by the county. 

A broken system

The lack of reform for juvenile detention on both a state and county level has discouraged many advocates. Robbie Roberts, who was a S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice probation officer for three years, left his job after feeling that many agencies cared more about protecting themselves than protecting children.

Roberts, who now lives in North Carolina, estimates he visited the Charleston County facility at least 50 times. He said he doesn't remember juveniles being outside even once or twice during any of his visits. He also remembers clients telling him about a "wet cell." 

"It sounded like hell," Roberts said.

He misses working with the children, but Roberts said he was frustrated by working with officials and agencies that prioritized themselves over the children.

"They just don't care. It's negligence," he said. "There's no reason the facility in Charleston County can't be better."

Dave Zoellner, managing attorney for the Charleston branch of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, toured the facility in 2018. In his report, he writes that the corrections officers told him juveniles spent up to 22 hours a day in their cells on weekends and up to 19 or 20 hours on school days. They also told him about a "cool room" used for restriction.

Charleston County Detention Center Juvenile Annex

A Charleston County sheriff's deputy keeps watch over the youths being housed in the now-closed Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center on  Feb. 26, 2020. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Having a county detention center carries a risk that you'll detain more juveniles for lesser offenses, said Josh Gupta-Kagan, a University of South Carolina law professor specializing in juvenile justice. He said conventional wisdom states that it's better to be in state custody, which offers more services and staff that are more attuned to juvenile needs.

Detaining juveniles without good cause can do them great harm, Gupta-Kagan said. 

“You don’t lock a child up to protect them. They’re clearly being punished," Susan Dunn, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said of juvenile justice programs across the country.

When issues do arise, the voices of teenagers aren't always taken seriously, Dunn said. For the officials in charge, she said, "You just get jaded. You can't afford to be horrified — you become too much part of the system."

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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