- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s main juvenile prison has seen a sharp rise in violence and gang activity, and the leader of the agency said Tuesday she is trying to hire 45 new guards to help.

The extra guards are needed in part because the Department of Juvenile Justice is moving away from an earlier policy of making the juvenile prison in Columbia more like a dorm and less like a jail, agency director Sylvia Murray said.

The problem is also part of DJJ’s own success in moving less violent offenders who are better candidates for rehabilitation off to wilderness camps and away from a more traditional prison setting.

DJJ now has fewer than 100 prisoners, who are among the worst youthful offenders.

Those offenders briefly took over a dorm in December and in February, tried to hatch a plot after a fight at a black history assembly that included setting fires, hijacking the fire truck that came to put out the blaze and ramming it through the prison fence, said Elwood Sessions, the administrator for the prison.

When the fire truck didn’t enter the prison on Feb. 26, the inmate continued to riot. One male inmate made it to the dorm where female inmates live and guards locked all of the women in bathrooms to protect them, authorities said.

The riot, along with a starting salary that will be only $27,000 a year even if lawmakers approve a raise, have made it hard to get new employees.

Murray said the agency is using job fairs for the first time and asking the state’s unemployment agency to help them find workers.

DJJ started this budget year with $3.7 million in the bank. Murray said the agency has spent more than $400,000 this year on new furniture and sinks that can be bolted down because they were being as weapons. It also installed shatter-proof glass.

Lexington Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy suggested Murray use that money to pay hiring bonuses to guards.

Interim DJJ Inspector General Freddie Pough said 14 juveniles face 40 different charges from the February riot. He said many of them were charged as adults to send a message that the agency can’t allow the inmates to show such disregard for officers.

“If you’re charged as an adult, you’re going to be treated as an adult. That’s resonating across that campus,” Pough said.

The Senate committee will meet again. Members asked Murray to come up with a concrete plan to improve safety and make sure the new guards hired are retained.

“We are here to work with you,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia.

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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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