- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Leaders at South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice were slow to recognize problems that led to riots at its main prison but are taking decisive steps to regain control, the state inspector general said.

Several issues over a few years combined to create bigger problems at the agency, according to the report Inspector General Patrick Maley presented to a joint committee of Senate and House members Thursday.

There was a lack of serious punishment for misbehavior along with an increase in gang activity and a policy to move less violent offenders to wilderness camps, concentrating the most dangerous inmates at the agency’s main Columbia prison.

Looming over it all was a policy of making the prison more like dorm than a jail, trying to use discussions instead of sanctions.

“It didn’t work,” Maley said. “They are going to step back and regroup.”

DJJ Director Sylvia Murray and her staff came up with a plan, but an executive at the agency dragged his feet and it did not get implemented for months, Maley said. That worker has been let go.

In the meantime, four incidents happened at the Columbia prison in less than a year where fires were set and property destroyed. In February, juveniles set fires hoping to get a fire truck inside the prison fence, then planned to hijack the truck and ram it through the gate in a massive prison gate. Guards put out the fires with extinguishers, and the staff decided the truck didn’t need to get inside, foiling the plan.

In that same incident, a male prisoner broke into the female dorm looking to sexually assault the teens inside. A guard locked them in the bathroom for their safety.

DJJ responded by charging 14 juveniles and sending them to the adult prison in Richland County. That sent a message that the agency would take criminal acts behind bars seriously along with other steps like putting guards back into uniforms instead of polo shirts, Maley said.

“There was a consequence. These guys are going to big boy jail,” he said.

Maley’s report also called for a policy to help determine when juveniles face criminal charges for misbehavior instead of internal punishment. Currently, that decision can be put in the hands of guards who may be swayed by personal relationships.

Lawmakers also discussed the $27,000-a-year starting salary for guards at DJJ. The House put an extra $1,500 a year for guards into their budget, even though Murray didn’t ask for it. Both Democratic Sen. Floyd Nicholson and Republican Rep. Eddie Tallon said the pay must be higher.

The guards also work 12-hour shifts, which many say they like because they get a couple of weekends off and can find it easier to work a second job. But Tallon said is dangerous because of the risk of fatigue.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins

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