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United States: conditions at South Carolina juvenile facility unconstitutional

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued notice on February 5, 2020 that it has found the “totality of the conditions, practices, and incidents” it discovered at Broad River Road Complex (BRRC), South Carolina’s long-term juvenile commitment facility, violated the juveniles’ Fourteenth Amendment rights.

After stating its intent in September 27, 2017, to investigate BRRC, the DOJ conducted three onsite visits, reviewed documents and videos, and conducted dozens of interviews with juveniles, staff, and management within South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The DOJ noted that the DJJ was very cooperative and took steps to address concerns raised on site.

This is not the first time DJJ came under scrutiny for its failure to provide constitutional conditions of confinement for juveniles committed to its custody. In the 1990s, a federal court issued an injunction requiring DJJ to implement minimally acceptable standards to remedy the unconstitutional confinement conditions at its facilities.

The DOJ found DJJ fails to keep the average daily population of 100 juveniles at BRRC reasonably safe from harm and its use of isolation is unconstitutional.

Over an 11-month span from July 2018 and May 2019, “there were 134 fights and 71 assaults that resulted in 99 injuries to youths. On average, youth fights and assaults occurred every two of three days and a youth sustained an injury every third day.”

Staff reports in 2017 “describe significant incidents such as youth being punched, knocked to the ground and stomped, struck in the face, grabbed by the genitals, and having their glasses broken in altercations with their peers.” The injuries included loose teeth, a bite, and a broken nose.

The physical plant’s design was seen as contributing to the problem because it prevented supervision because it lacked a line of sight in two pods and video did not cover certain areas of the campus. Combine that with only one guard overseeing 10 juveniles in each pod, and the result is that youths are able to assault each other without fear of intervention.

The DOJ noted that staff decreased by 27 percent, from 235 in September 2017 to 172 in May 2019. Yet, the population increased from 119 to 127 over that period.

It also found the failure to have videos held for longer than two weeks prevented investigation of incidents. Of 47 incidents in 2017, video for only 12 was available for the DOJ’s review. Failure to train staff de-escalation techniques resulted in them using force to restrain youths or in response to fights.

While the constitution prohibits using isolation solely for punishment of youths, DJJ uses isolation for punishment even where the youth was not a threat to health or safety. Youths were placed in isolation for “having playing cards,” “being unable to complete a drug test,” and “tattooing each other with ink pens.”

The average stay in isolation was three days, but in 2017 youth were isolated 39 times for 10 or more days. The longest stay was 225 days. On average, BRRC used isolation 94 times a month from July 1, 2018, to May 31, 2019. There were 46 instances of youth under suicide watch being placed in isolation or mental health observation.

The conditions of isolation are harsh, for the cells are dark and have no natural light. The only window in the cell was painted over “to impede the youth from interacting with other youth or staff outside.” The DOJ found instances of youths’ mental health deteriorating from prolonged isolation. In a few cases, juveniles were not provided psychiatric care after attempting self-harm.

The DOJ’s report listed remedial measures to correct the conditions. The February 5, 2020, notice points out that DOJ can file suit if the conditions are not corrected.

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