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SC News

South Carolina Juvenile Prison Workers Walk Out in Protest

Juvenile Justice Walkout
Michelle Liu/AP
/
AP
Employees of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice gather at the agency's Broad River Road complex in Columbia, S.C., to protest poor working conditions on Friday, June 4, 2021. Correctional officers say that low pay and short staffing are creating safety issues for both employees and children locked up at the facility. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — About two dozen correctional officers and teachers at South Carolina's beleaguered juvenile justice agency joined an impromptu walkout Friday, protesting what they describe as low staffing, poor pay and mismanagement.

The walkout from the agency's Broad River Road complex in Columbia follows weeks of legislative scrutiny into the agency after an audit released in April found an uptick in violence, a failure to maintain adequate security staffing and many other deep-rooted problems.

The protesters said conditions have worsened in recent years. Low pay and morale have contributed to high turnover, the workers said, leaving remaining employees to work 24- to 36-hour shifts without breaks. The agency is so short-staffed that neither children nor employees are safe, protesters said, with growing incidents of violence between youths and youth attacks on staff members.

Brittany Larkin said she was hired on a roughly $30,000 salary a year ago to work the front gate at the Columbia campus. But soon she was switched to supervising children, with only minimal training. Now she said she works back-to-back shifts often without food, water or bathroom breaks, all while nearly six months pregnant.

“I'd been working like this before I got pregnant,” Larkin said. “It seems like when I got pregnant they wanted to work me harder. We're tired.”

Sen. Katrina Shealy, who leads the panel of lawmakers reviewing this year’s audit, arrived in support of the employees, encouraging them to stand strong. She agreed that the workers, many of them women and minorities, are underpaid and overworked.

Shealy, a longtime agency volunteer, described its decline from a place where top leaders knew the names of individual children there to a setting where children are locked up without receiving any rehabilitative services.

“Kids used to come out of here with a trade,” Shealy said. “Kids don't come out of here with anything now except how to become a better criminal.”

Department Director Freddie Pough didn't speak to staffers publicly Friday morning, though an agency spokesman said Pough was offering to meet one-on-one with employees and handling day-to-day facility operations, given the staff shortage caused by the walkout.

Shealy and other lawmakers criticized Pough at a hearing last month, pointing to his failure to report abuse and neglect incidents to child welfare or law enforcement agencies as required by law. They also wondered why Pough wasn't using available funds to raise correctional officer pay. Pough told the lawmakers he wouldn't resign.

“Man up,” Shealy said of Pough's absence Friday. “Get out here.”

Pough later addressed staff still gathered in the facility parking lot Friday afternoon. Pough told reporters he was committed to the job and looking into consolidating youths into a larger dorm so fewer staff members would be required to work extra shifts.

“I understand their frustration,” Pough told reporters. “They needed to hear from me, and I needed to hear from them and respond to their concerns.”

Gov. Henry McMaster said Friday that Pough, who took on the job in 2017, had inherited a “tough situation." He noted that current budget proposals in the General Assembly include more than $4 million in added pay for correctional officers.

“There's no excuse for anyone to walk off of a job, particularly this kind of a job, where leaving the post puts not only the young people in danger, but also puts enormous stress on those officers who are still in the facilities trying to do their job to keep everyone safe," McMaster told reporters.

McMaster has also directed the State Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Administration to review the agency's processes and procedures.

Last year, federal investigators found the agency was violating the civil rights of incarcerated youths, from failing to train staff to using “punitive, prolonged” isolation units that left youths confined to small, dark cells for 23 hours a day.

The U.S. Department of Justice then ordered juvenile prison officials to begin making changes in less than two months or face a lawsuit. At the time, Pough promised to improve facility conditions, though he noted those problems had been present since before he took charge.

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Liu is 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.