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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: McMaster must take emergency action at DJJ while long-term solutions are found

Juvenile Justice Walkout

Friday's walkout by employees of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice wasn't an emergency. It was a response to an emergency — one state officials still haven't addressed. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

Even in a state where the laws and public sentiment are openly hostile to unionization, no one should have been surprised when two dozen employees of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice walked off the job on Friday.

We’ve had plenty of warning that working conditions were intolerable — from an April audit that found dangerously inadequate security staffing, a rise in violence and continued struggles with problems that forced out the previous director just four years ago, to a series of legislative hearings that displayed a disturbing lack of urgency from the new director.

On Friday, employees who refused to go to work and off-duty workers who joined them outside the agency’s secure facility in Columbia complained that low pay and deteriorating working conditions have increased turnover, forcing guards to work 24- and even 48-hour shifts without breaks. This has fed a vicious cycle that leaves youth and employees unsafe, with a growing number of youth attacking staff and staff having to take time off for injuries, compounding the problem.

Acting Capt. Ricky Dyckes told Columbia’s State newspaper that “it’s to the point now that when you go to work you don’t even know what time you’re getting off” and said officials had to drive a correctional officer home recently because she was too exhausted to drive after working 24 hours straight. “Everybody’s at a breaking point,” he said.

Regardless of how you feel about the walkout — Gov. Henry McMaster says it’s never acceptable for anybody to walk off the job, while Sen. Katrina Shealy showed up to applaud the walkout — or whether you believe state auditors or an embattled agency chief who disputed some of the audit’s findings, we all should agree on this: Nobody should work 48 or even 24 consecutive hours in a prison. Ever.

Even if you don’t care about the employees, that is simply not safe. Security officers inside a lockup aren’t like firefighters, who can sleep until an alarm sounds. This is a job that requires active monitoring at all times.

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Mr. McMaster and DJJ Director Freddie Pough have been working to address problems cited in the latest audit and reflected in employee comments on Friday. The state Department of Administration is reviewing DJJ’s personnel policies, the executive budget office is reviewing its pay and compensation, and SLED is looking into comments Mr. Pough made that seemed to indicate he was violating state law. On Friday, Mr. McMaster put SLED and the Corrections Department on standby in case they were needed to help keep DJJ safe while employees walked out; five helped out over the weekend.

The reviews are an important part of finding a long-term solution, as is increased legislative attention. We particularly need to determine how much the increased violence and turnover are a result of insufficient funding or inadequate laws and how much they’re caused by bad management decisions.

The Post and Courier’s Stephen Fastenau and Seanna Adcox report that the agency left $11 million on the table in the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, even as employees quit over low pay and security officers were forced to work dangerously long hours. The April review by the Legislative Audit Council found that turnover meant security officers are less experienced than they were in 2017 (not coincidentally, security violations have more than doubled) and pay raises have gone primarily to management. Their extra paywould have paid for a 14% raise last year for all 113 entry-level officers, the audit said.

But Friday’s walkout didn’t create an emergency. It was a response, appropriate or not, to an existing emergency: a staffing emergency that demanded, and continues to demand, immediate action.

Those backups already should have been called in. They should have been called in the first time DJJ found itself in a position where an employee needed to work 24 consecutive hours. They should be pulling shifts now instead of allowing DJJ employees to work so long.

If Mr. McMaster didn’t know before Friday that understaffing was that severe, he needs to demand an explanation from Mr. Pough — at the least. If he knew about it, he needs to explain to us why he considers it safe — much less acceptable — to have prisons guarded by people who are working longer hours than they can possibly perform such critical functions.

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