Photos reveal effects of overcrowding at DJJ

Director says reopening Greenville County’s facility could provide relief
A family court judge gave former state Representative Fletcher Smith a copy of a presentation from the spring Judicial Conference. The images shocked Smith.
Published: Oct. 17, 2023 at 6:20 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - Each year thousands of South Carolina’s children and teens are referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice. The goal is rehabilitation, but one former and one current lawmaker say right now that’s impossible.

A family court judge gave former state Representative Fletcher Smith a copy of a presentation from the spring Judicial Conference. The images shocked Smith.

“When I first saw these photos ... I was outraged,” Smith said.

The Department of Juvenile Justice, better known as DJJ, has the sole legal responsibility of housing the state’s incarcerated youth. However, three counties have voluntarily opened their own juvenile facilities to house the kids and teens closer to home: Richland, Charleston and Greenville.

But that changed last year.

Greenville County closed the facility temporarily, citing a staffing shortage. Now the Upstate kids are housed more than 90 miles away in Columbia.

Images from the DJJ presentation show flooded floors, graffiti-covered walls, dirty furniture and busted ceilings. Smith said he believes the conditions there constitute abuse.

“Is that the way we want to treat our children?” Smith said. “I say heck no.”

FOX Carolina Investigates visited DJJ in Columbia. Director Eden Hendrick said the conditions are a symptom of a bigger problem plaguing the department.

“Because of the way things have broken down, we’re holding kids for years in a space that’s not designed for that,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick said several factors have forced DJJ into a corner.

In 2016 the state legislature passed the Raise the Age Law, increasing all ages in the children’s code by one year. As a result, there are more offenders, and older offenders, who are detained at DJJ.

Part of the law required it only be enacted once DJJ received funding to implement it. Hendrick said that didn’t happen.

Then the pandemic hit in 2020, delaying a key part of the juvenile justice process: waiver hearings. These determine whether or not the case will go to a family court or the adult criminal court.

As a result, juvenile offenders are waiting at DJJ facilities for years instead of the maximum 90-day period they were designed for.

“We try to accommodate things as best we can, but it’s very difficult when you have a facility designed to hold 72 youth and you average 120,” Hendrick said.

Add in a staffing shortage and Hendrick said the damage is inevitable.

“Destruction happens and when you don’t have the staff to let youth have certain activities they take it out on the building,” Hendrick said.

Because they are already over capacity, Hendrick said there’s nowhere to move the kids to so they can make repairs.

Hendrick said reopening the Greenville County Juvenile Detention Center, or GCJDC, would alleviate their problems.

According to emails from the county, the GCJDC was down 90 staff members when it closed in March 2022.

Budget documents we obtained show at one point Greenville planned to re-open in June this year, but that didn’t happen.

We’ve asked the county spokesperson for updates in June, August and September. Each time he said they were still short on staff, ranging from 40 to 50 positions.

The most recent update was 46.

County officials have tried attracting new hires by raising starting salaries to the highest in the state: $46,318 to $53,266.

When GCJDC closed, there were just three teens housed inside, but it can hold 47.

Smith said the state has failed.

“The judges don’t want to send them to the Department of Juvenile Justice knowing they’re sending these kids to an abusive institution,” Smith said.

We sat down with State Sen. Karl Allen, who represents Greenville County and serves on the Corrections and Penology Committee in the Statehouse.

Allen said it’s time for Greenville to re-open.

“Greenville County has been temporarily closed too long and it’s time for Greenville County to step up to the plate,” Allen said.

In 2022, a county spokesperson told FOX Carolina they would be moving the 30 staff members from the GCJDC to the adult facility. Allen said that’s not the right approach.

“The best way to repair an adult in the criminal justice system is to repair and rehabilitate a juvenile at an early age so they don’t enter that system,” Allen said. “So is their priority misplaced? Let’s focus on these juveniles.”

A spokesperson for the county said reopening the facility is a priority.

“We are making progress as aggressive recruiting efforts and the highest pay in the state are attracting qualified candidates,” he said.

Allen said the Charleston and Richland County facilities have remained open. Both facilities, according to their respective spokespeople, average about 30 juveniles a day.

“I’m looking to see what options we have to mandate that the counties will take their role and responsibility and not add to the problem by temporarily closing,” Allen said. “It is now 2023, getting ready to go into 2024, temporary is looking more and more permanent and harm is being done daily.”

As of Oct. 17, a spokesperson for DJJ said there are 13 Greenville County juveniles in their custody.