State senators give DJJ leader a vote of no confidence

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 7:43 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After a tumultuous few weeks for the Department of Juvenile Justice, a subcommittee of state senators voted unanimously to give a vote of no confidence to the department’s director.

The Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee held a hearing and invited public commentary in the aftermath of several high-profile incidents which have brought increased scrutiny to the department.

In April, a Legislative Audit Council report found the department to be understaffed, undertrained, and growing increasingly dangerous for the juveniles and staff.

On May 20, a joint committee of lawmakers grilled DJJ Director Freddie Pough for three hours about the report.

At the meeting, Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D-Richland) asked Pough if he would consider resigning. Pough declined.

Harpootlian also asked subcommittee chair Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) to arrange a meeting with Governor Henry McMaster on about department leadership.

RELATED STORY | State lawmakers call for changes in DJJ and its leadership

Both Shealy and the governor’s office confirmed the meeting happened on May 25, where the governor made clear he was not interested in replacing Pough. However, the governor’s office did confirm to WIS McMaster directed SLED and the state department of administration to review DJJ policies.

On June 4, security staff and teachers walked out at the Broad River Road complex, forcing the department to scramble to secure the 200-acre facility. The walkout was not pre-planned but the culmination of long-simmering issues on pay and safety.

In Wednesday’s hearing, a series of current and former Department of Juvenile Justice employees gave emotional and critical testimony of the department with state lawmakers.

DJJ welding teacher Jeremy Lee brought ribbons his students have earned in competitions, saying a lack of security staff has impeded his ability to teach and his students’ ability to learn.

“My program cannot function without security. I’m a welder. I have a hood over my head. Do you want eight criminals behind you while you’re trying to help a child. Do you trust them? With no security in that room, would you trust them? No, I don’t either. But they’re my kids, I love them and I want to help them. So I do it most of the time without security,” he said.

Lee and carpentry teacher Wes Laws expressed frustration with DJJ leadership and Pough.

“I’ve heard some of the senators up here refer to it as a dumpster fire, it is not a dumpster fire. It is a trash fire,” Laws said.

Pough testified after several hours of staff testimony. He defended the department and his performance against senators’ questions. At one point Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D-Richland) asked if Pough would quit.

“There’s a number of great things that we’ve done since my administration. They may not have been reviewed by [the April report]. We have a successful rate of folks graduating with their GED, their high school diploma. We’ve automated our event reporting system. We have received a number of grants to help us with our youth in transition,” he said.

Pough said he’s committed to the DJJ because he believes the department is doing “great work.”

The vote of no confidence is ceremonial, and any action to remove Pough would come from Governor Henry McMaster.

Subcommittee Chair Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) said the subcommittee will continue to gather information and pressure the governor. McMaster’s office sent a statement reading:

“The governor is sympathetic to the issues being raised by DJJ staff members today. Changes are being made. In the short term, a private security firm will provide 40 guards to address DJJ staffing shortages. Thanks to the $4.5 million that the General Assembly has put in this year’s budget, every Juvenile Corrections Officer at DJJ will receive a raise next month, and every Juvenile Corrections Officer will be paid every penny they have earned working overtime. This includes paying them instead of using comp time. DJJ will use that funding to raise the salaries of JCOs to the same amount their counterparts make at the Department of Corrections. Right now DJJ JCOs make up to $3,000 less than COs at SCDC. In addition, we are instituting a $7,500 signing bonus to address the high turnover rate among entry-level JCOs. As well as a $1,000 referral bonus for every new JCO hire.

At the direction of Governor McMaster, the State Law Enforcement Division is reviewing DJJ’s procedures for reporting incidents and the Department of Administration is conducting an analysis of the critical staff at DJJ. The department’s struggle with staffing, pay, and retention is not unique. Criminal justice and law enforcement agencies in the state have been dealing with recruitment and retention problems for years.”

DJJ spokesperson Jarid Munsch said the security firm is Allied Security. SC Department of Corrections spokesperson Crysti Shain confirmed SCDC uses that firm to aid staffing at hospitals when inmates are transferred for care, but are not used in formal prisons.

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