16-year-old teen dies after suicide attempt at SC's detention facility for juveniles
A 16-year-old teenager at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice has died after a suicide attempt Monday at the Columbia-area detention center for the state's juvenile offenders.
The teen, identified as Easley Jeffcoat by the Richland County Coroner's Office, attempted suicide at 10:30 p.m. Monday at the Broad River Road campus' Willow Lane Infirmary, DJJ said in a Thursday morning press release.
The 200-acre Broad River Road campus is DJJ's long-term commitment facility.
DJJ said the teen was given CPR before EMS responded, and taken to a local hospital, where he died late Wednesday afternoon.
Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford said in a statement Thursday that she spoke directly to Jeffcoat's mother, who wanted Rutherford to share a message: “He saved lives at the end of his life. We were able to donate both of his kidneys and his liver. He’s a hero to those families and to us. His life was not in vain. He did something good.”
The agency said counselors will be made available until noon today for DJJ employees.
"This is a heartbreaking day, and we send our prayers and condolences to the youth's family and loved ones," DJJ's Executive Director Eden Hendrick said in a Thursday statement. "DJJ is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all youth entrusted to our care, and we will continue to fully investigate this tragic incident."
SC Public Radio has reached out to DJJ for more information about the teen's death.
In 2014, a 16-year-old teenager from Anderson County died by suicide in his dorm room at DJJ, media reported. The Post and Courier reported at the time that the teen was awaiting trial for a burglary charge, and was not being held in solitary confinement or under suicide watch. The newspaper reported three DJJ employees were suspended, and the State Law Enforcement Division was brought in to help investigate.
SC Public Radio has reached out to SLED about Wednesday's death.
"This death is devastating. But tragedies such as this one are not surprising — they are the inevitable consequence of years of systemic failures by the State of South Carolina," Jace Woodrum, head of the ACLU of South Carolina, said in part of a statement Thursday. "Providing meaningful rehabilitation of children in the care of the state is impossible without radical reform."
Gov. Henry McMaster first appointed Hendrick to take over the troubled agency in 2021 as acting director after the resignation of its embattled former director, Freddie Pough.
Earlier that year, dozens of DJJ teachers and correctional officers had walked off the job over safety concerns, lack of management and low pay, all while calling for Pough's exit. The walk out occurred after an April audit detailed ongoing staffing problems and safety concerns.
Speaking to lawmakers in 2021, Hendrick said DJJ's problems wouldn't be fixed overnight.
“It didn’t become like this in the past four years. It got a little worse in the last four years, but DJJ needs to completely reform almost every aspect of what it’s doing," Hendrick said, according to The State's reporting.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who joined the DJJ walkout in 2021, told SC Public Radio Thursday that the 16-year-old teen did not need to be at DJJ in the first place, but rather some kind of residential heath treatment center.
"We don't have any place to take kids with drug issues, mental health issues other than to stick them behind bars," said Shealy, who chairs the Senate's Family and Veterans' Services Committee. "... The judge should not have sentenced him to DJJ."
In its 2024 budget request, DJJ has asked lawmakers to spend an additional nearly $30 million, in part, to increase salaries to hire and keep employees. The request package also states that DJJ is in the starting stages of developing a master plan that'll outline best uses for the agency's 1,550 acres and 155 buildings.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Mental Health has asked lawmakers for more than $70 million, in part to cover costs associated with caring for adults and juveniles with mental health issues.
DJJ is under better direction with Hendrick, Shealy said.
But the senator told SC Public Radio that the agency is "not where it needs to be."
"I think she's (Hendrick) handle to handle it. I wish it (changes) would move faster. I'm not going to lie about that," she said. "I think she maybe needs to get more help."
This story may be updated.
If you or someone you know is in distress or a suicidal crisis, there are resources. Reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988, or chat with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline here. More resources are available via the National Alliance on Mental Health, or NAMI, website, by clicking here.