COLUMBIA, S.C. — Turning around South Carolina’s chronically dangerous juvenile prisons is now the job of a prosecutor who sent some of those children to jail.
Department of Juvenile Justice Director Eden Hendrick is leading the troubled agency after two of her predecessors resigned following state audits that found major faults, from a “useless and ineffective” in-house police force to an inability to keep children safe.
“We’ve been fighting this battle for a long time,” Hendrick said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m very hopeful that now that it’s actually getting some traction, and that we’ll be able to actually start to provide these youths the real services that they need.”
Horrors detailed in testimony to lawmakers and investigators include holding kids in solitary confinement in small concrete cells for months on end and scores of violent attacks by peers and guards. Staffers have hogtied, choked, slapped, and even bitten children in their care, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found.
Hendrick was confirmed in May shortly before the agency agreed to sweeping reforms at the main juvenile prison. Fixes include installing a modern surveillance system, revising use of force rules, reducing solitary confinement and making sure kids get physical and recreational activity.
Hendrick, who took over as interim director in September, is asking for time, to change both the prisons and the culture of an agency whose employees often feel forgotten and unappreciated.
Reform advocates want to give Hendrick a chance but meanwhile sued the state over the scope of the settlement, demanding a complete overhaul that includes four other facilities.
Hendrix said the surveillance system upgrade lawmakers funded two years ago is nearly finished and will ensure there is no place cameras can't monitor, eliminating blind spots where juveniles and staff know an assault won't be recorded.
Hendrick also got $20 million this month for one of her top priorities — building a separate 20-bed treatment facility for juveniles with serious mental illness. Such inmates get inadequate care at regular prisons, creating time-consuming and dangerous disruptions for staff and other juveniles.
The budget also includes $8 million for additional security, $1.6 million for raises and hiring bonuses, and $1.5 million to upgrade the system for virtual prison visits.
Elsewhere, she's making do where she can — like installing microwaves so that staff can eat hot lunches while keeping an eye on their charges — and looking forward to being able to offer the salaries needed to hire more people.
South Carolina's juvenile prisons carry the legacy of more than a decade under federal oversight around 20 years ago. Judges were stunned that children were being treated like hardened criminals who can't be reformed if given counseling, drug treatment and education, and work opportunities.
“Eden is new to her role, but this is a system, a department that has been in shambles and failing to abide by what the Constitution requires for decades. I’m not particularly amenable to the ‘trust us, we’re fixing it’ argument,” said Allen Chaney, an attorney with the ACLU of South Carolina.
The past two directors were forced out — Sylvia Murray in 2017 after failing to control gang-related riots, and Freddie Pough last year with lawmakers angry over an employee walkout.
“What our kids are interested in is things being better, not promises,” Chaney said.
Similar problems are evident across the country. In Texas, federal authorities recently began investigating five juvenile lockups, said Amy Borror, an expert in juvenile court systems at The Gault Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
“You can’t move quickly enough when children are being housed in these conditions,” Borror said. “We’re harming them every single day, we’re causing trauma, we're asking for more problems down the road.”
Extra money doesn't guarantee better results. Texas has spent 31% more on juvenile justice and South Carolina 27% more over the past decade, according to the Justice Policy Institute, which aims to make jailing children a last resort.
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But spending can help: Georgia has spent 24% more, focusing on community programs instead of youth prisons, and has seen a 20% drop in the number of juveniles in jail, according to the group's Sticker Shock report.
Advocates note that the abuse and neglect disproportionately impact Black children, who represent most of the South Carolina agency's charges.
In the ACLU lawsuit, one lawyer said current conditions are “eerily reminiscent” of what her clients on death row face, and what children experienced in the 1990s. The suit describes fights between entire wings of children, and juveniles fearing nighttime attacks if they take sleep medications.
One mother said her 14-year-old son was attacked dozens of times by other children and guards during his years in custody and was placed for his own protection in solitary confinement, where he struggled to get an education using occasional worksheets.
One guard held the boy down during an attack by youths. Children beat him with milk crates, locks and pipes yanked from the ceiling, the mother reported in court papers. Because of the pandemic, she could only see his injuries in video calls.
Nationwide, the number of children held in restrictive jail or prison-like settings has dropped significantly in the last two decades.
South Carolina isn’t following that trend.
A 2019 change raising the minimum age that teenagers could be tried as adults from 17 to 18 put more children into the juvenile system, and court shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic kept them there, according to Hendrick.
Legislation to decrease the number of incarcerated juveniles, establish diversion programs and a children’s Bill of Rights, limit probation terms and ban commitments for status offenses died after making it out of a Senate committee this spring.
Despite the setbacks, Alexsandra Chauhan, who shared courtrooms with Hendrick as a public defender, credits her for putting fewer children in isolation and more in therapy, along with the security camera overhaul.
“She’s been gaining my respect day by day. I truly see the changes she’s been implementing and I truly recognize the hardship of her job," said Chauhan, who works with juvenile defenders at the state’s Commission on Indigent Defense.
Michelle Liu was a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her at twitter.com/@mchelleliu