- Civil rights groups are suing the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice.
- They allege “nightmarish” and inhumane conditions where children live in filth and are victims of routine violence.
- The detained youth are disproportionately Black.
Children detained at a South Carolina youth detention facility live with feces on the floor, mold on the walls, and cockroaches in their food, according to a new lawsuit filed against the state’s juvenile justice agency.
But worst of all, the kids — who range in age from 13 to 19 – are subjected to routine violence by other inmates or staff, the suit says.
“These kids are in danger. The risk comes from a whole number of sources that we outline in the lawsuit, but the biggest one is just endemic violence in these facilities,” said Previn Warren, from the law firm of Jenner & Block. “There are not enough staff and the staff that are there are not adequately trained to contain the amount of violence that is going on … kids are just getting hurt.”
The lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, alleges that the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice is violating the civil rights of children detained at the Broad River Road Complex and four other state detention facilities.
It also states that staff at the facilities use solitary confinement — in cells with no natural light — as a way to “protect” them from violence, which is rampant in the facilities.
Some children spend months in isolation, and there is no meaningful educational or mental health services for the detained youth, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights South Carolina, and Justice 360.
More than 250 children are in custody, and they are disproportionately Black and from families that live below the federal poverty line, according to the suit.
The lawsuit details documented cases of violence against the detainees, by each other, as well as staff.
Between July 2018 and May 2019, there were “134 fights and 71 assaults that resulted in 99 injuries to youth in a facility with an average daily population of just over 100,” according to the lawsuit, which cited a recent Justice Department report.
The civil rights groups allege that when children are assaulted, staff does little to investigate or record the incidents. In cases where they believe a child will continue to be assaulted, they use solitary confinement to keep them away from the attackers.
There, they are held for 23 hours a day with no sunlight.
Earlier this year, one unnamed 16-year-old detained at the BRRC was assaulted by three other kids who entered his room.
He was left “bleeding profusely.”
“Rather than intervening in the attack, the officer on duty told Child 1 to stay away from the facility’s cameras so that he could not be seen bleeding,” the lawsuit said.
In another case, a 15-year-old detained at the state’s Juvenile Detention Center was assaulted by several boys who kicked him in the head as he laid on the floor, according to the suit.
There was one correctional officer nearby and he was unable to break up the fight, and had to call for backup. Eventually, he was taken to the infirmary and was only treated with Tylenol, despite severe injuries, according to the suit.
Since then, the same group of assailants have been allowed to “approach, taunt, and menace him,” the suit says.
First quarter of 2021, there were 25 instances of inappropriate sexual contact, with a majority at BRRC.
There were a total of 178 injuries to youth at that five facilities during the same time period.
Staff was responsible for five assaults, according to the lawsuit.
The civil rights groups allege inhumane conditions at the facilities, where rooms are overrun with odor, trash, and bugs.
When toilets back-up, for example, they have been left unfixed for weeks.
On one occasion, sprinklers went off, and the children continued to be housed in standing water, as their clothes and bodies were soaked, the suit says.
“In certain facilities, maggots and cockroaches come up through the drains,” the suit alleges.
Some of these allegations have been documented in the media. During a staff walk-out last summer protesting worker conditions at BRRC, correctional employees spoke out about a broken sewage system that left waste all over the floor.
Lt. Ricky Dyckes Jr., told reporters, according to the suit, that there were tissues, feces, urine on the floor.
“You can smell it when you come to lock up,” he is quoted saying in the lawsuit. “Those kids are inhaling it and living in those conditions. This is just unacceptable.”
A history of issues
South Carolina’s juvenile detention facilities have been in and out of the spotlight since the 1960s, when Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Howard James exposed that boys were “beaten with fists, rubber hoses, ropes, broken hoe handles and broom handles, and other weapons.”
In the 1990s, a group of law firms and civil rights organizations representing children incarcerated in the facilities successfully sued the agency over the use of solitary confinement, and was put under a consent decree, which required monitoring from an outside agency.
The state ended up paying $1.1 million to settle 9 nine claims alleging that children as young as ten years old had been sexually assaulted at DJJ facilities at the time.
“One thing that really shocks my conscience about this case is just how long these abuses have been going on and how many attempts there have been to fix them that have not ultimately resulted in lasting change for this very vulnerable population,” Warren told Insider.
For the last year, walk-outs, audits, and a DOJ report resulted in the resignation of the former executive director Freddie Pough.
In February Eden Hendrick was named as new director, after working as the acting director for the five months prior.
She has publically acknowledged failures of the department.
“We’re not here to indict the current leader. We’re here to task for the systemic changes that current leadership is acknowledged needs to happen,” Warren said. “These are systemic failings that predate director Hendrick’s tenure by years and decades, so this isn’t about any lack of leadership on her part. It’s about ensuring that the changes that she has indicated she wants to implement do get implemented and are appropriately resourced, and happen fast because these kids are in danger and they need the help right now.”
A message left with the Department of Juvenile Justice was not immediately returned.
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