- Associated Press - Thursday, March 10, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Gangs are taking over the main Department of Juvenile Justice prison in South Carolina, starting three riots in eight months and causing prisoners and staff to fear for their lives, a corrections officer said Thursday.

“Is DJJ in a crisis? Yes. Am I afraid? Yes. Is there an escalation of violence? Yes,” Catherine McKnight told a House committee investigating the agency.

Later, DJJ Director Sylvia Murray told the House Legislative Oversight Committee that the agency hasn’t had a gang intervention specialist in a year and the police chief’s job was open for almost three years despite having more than $3 million in the bank.

Murray says DJJ is taking steps to protect prisoner and staff safety, like implementing stricter discipline, installing glass that isn’t broken easily and sinks that can’t be ripped from walls, and housing juveniles based on risk.

“We have been in the process for months of doing a lot of these things. But because of the urgency of the event last month, we saw the need to actually speed this up a bit,” Murray said.

Lawmakers were angry. They ordered a legislative audit of the agency.

“You don’t have a gang specialist, you don’t have a chief, but you’re putting that nice lady without a gun in the midst of a group of people who hate each other? And I’m sending, sometimes, voluntarily, children to your department and putting them in the middle of a gang war,” said Republican Rep. Doug Brannon, a lawyer from Landrum who works in Family Court.

The state’s juvenile prison system has been troubled before. A 1990 lawsuit over physical abuse and overcrowding led the federal government to monitor youth prisons in South Carolina for eight years. There also have been recent problems with the Department of Social Services, which is asking for more caseworkers after critics said a penny-pinching director caused child abuse cases to fall through the cracks.

McKnight works at the juvenile prison wing where a number of prisoners rioted on Feb. 26. Sinks were torn from walls and thrown through glass windows. Some prisoners made it to the parking lot where they destroyed police cars and other property. One male inmate made it to the dorm where female inmates live, authorities said.

McKnight wasn’t on duty, but she said she saw the aftermath and cried. “It was destroyed as if a tornado went through it,” McKnight said.

The February riot was sparked by six or seven juvenile prisoners from a rival gang beating up a gang leader at a black history month event, McKnight said.

“The gangs have taken over,” McKnight said.

Arrest warrants show five juveniles have been charged as adults after the riots. The charges include attempted sexual assault and burglary for breaking into the girls dorm, attempted murder for trying to run someone over in a car and arson for setting toilet paper on fire. DJJ officials say more charges against more people are possible.

There are other problems too. McKnight said guards like her can’t put prisoners in lockdown without permission of a supervisor, even if that person isn’t at the facility. She said sometimes the supervisor never calls back.

The juvenile prison in Columbia handles the 100 or so most dangerous juvenile offenders. There are more than 40 other facilities across the state.

The DJJ director thanked McKnight for testifying and bringing problems to her attention. Lawmakers on the committee were also appreciative, with Chairman Kirkman Finlay asking the 60-year-old officer, who has worked at DJJ for nine years after retiring from the Federal Reserve System, how close she was to her next retirement.

McKnight said she wanted to work about another year, and Finlay stared at the DJJ director as he told committee staffers to check on McKnight from time to time and make sure she was OK.

“The perception of retaliation is as bad as retaliation,” said Finlay, R-Columbia. “It breeds a culture, a quiet acquiescence to appalling facts.”


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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