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After walk-out, DJJ touting improvement efforts while some see worse situation

Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 3:46 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2021 at 8:39 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A dramatic staff walk-out in early June triggered a series of “improvement efforts” by the Department of Juvenile Justice at its Broad River Road Complex over the last nine weeks.

First-hand accounts of the conditions in the facility paint a dire picture of the aftermath.

Two DJJ employees and State Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) told WIS the children in DJJ custody are living in “inhumane” conditions, citing children living near feces.

They also report limited results on the issues of manpower and security.

Shealy said she toured the facility unannounced on July 20. WIS interviewed her on July 21 and the employees on July 28.

DJJ spokesperson Jarid Munsch declined an interview request with DJJ Director Freddie Pough.

On July 27, he sent a multi-part statement outlining its efforts on various issues following the walk-out.

You can read the full statement here.

Following the initial statement, WIS requested comments on the claims the employees made. Subsequent statements were sent on Aug. 5, and Aug. 10.

The employee concerns are the latest in a series of critiques the department has faced since this spring.

In April, an independent study of the department found it dangerously understaffed and undertrained. It reported a 42 percent jump in violent incidents from 2017.

In May, a subcommittee of lawmakers grilled Pough about the report. State Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D-Richland) asked Pough if he would resign. Pough declined.

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

On June 2, Governor Henry McMaster’s office announced he instructed SLED and the Department of Administration to review DJJ policies and provide recommendations for improvement.

RELATED STORY >> McMaster directs SLED, Department of Administration to review DJJ policies

On June 4, roughly 30 DJJ security staff and teachers walked out. They protested low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions within the complex.

RELATED STORY >> SC DJJ security staff, teachers walk off the job

On June 9, a subcommittee of state senators gave Pough a vote of no confidence.

RELATED STORY >> State senators give DJJ leader a vote of no confidence

On June 29, the full South Carolina Senate also gave Pough a vote of no confidence.

Allegations of feces on the floor

Lt. Ricky Dyckes Jr. walked out with his fellow security staffers on June 4 and has been vocal about the problems he sees in the department.

On the day of his interview with WIS (July 28), Dyckes said his frustrations boiled over into an argument with a supervisor. After the exchange, he claimed he was stripped of his badge, and escorted off the property.

WIS asked the DJJ for confirmation on his employment status, and received this statement on Aug. 5:

As it relates to Mr. Dykes, it is our practice and procedure not to release or discuss specifics as it relates to personnel matters. However, it is my understanding that Mr. Dykes received a written document from human resources that outlines information specific to him.

After a Freedom of Information request from WIS, the department sent documents on Aug. 10 laying out the department has suspended Dyckes pending an investigation, with an intent to terminate him.

Dyckes said in the aftermath of the walkout, the department consolidated the Broad River Road Complex youth into one building to ease the strain on manpower.

He said that the building had a faulty sewage system which was creating “inhumane” conditions. ”You’ve got tissues, feces, urine all on the floor. You can smell it when you come to lock up. Those kids are inhaling it and living in those conditions. This is just unacceptable,” he said.

Dyckes said the conditions were present when the youth in his charge were moved to the building after the walk-out.

DJJ construction teacher Wes Laws also protested in June and has testified before lawmakers about his concerns.

He echoed Dyckes’ statements about the consolidation of juveniles and their proximity to human waste.

“[I feel] anger, frustration, sadness. It literally makes me sick, it really does. It makes me, I have the dry heaves sometimes when I think about how inhumanely they’re being treated,” he said.

Sen. Shealy has spearheaded efforts for change at the department in recent months. She has led subcommittee hearings that have grilled Pough, got the state senate to give him a vote of no confidence, and attended the June walk-out.

Additionally, she and Sen. Shane Martin (R-Spartanburg) met with the governor to address their concerns about the DJJ and its leadership. She said conversations with the governor on the issue have since ended.

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She said she toured the facility unannounced on July 20 and found the feces on the ground.

“To say I was upset, or to say I was shocked at how bad things were, would be an understatement,” she said.

She said she went to a dorm where “most of the boys are housed right now.”

“You had two young men there that were mopping the floor. You could see where there was, they were cleaning up urine and in the other part, there were feces, food on the floor. The ceilings and the tiles were torn down and to say that the smell was bad, would be an understatement,” she said.

She said a similar situation played out in the girl’s section of the facility.

“That’s the smell I can’t get over. How bad it smelled walking down that hall on that girl’s side. There were trash bags that looked like they had their food plates in it and then it was, you can smell the urine and how just dirty it was in there,” she said.

She went on to state: ”We don’t do the kids on the border like this. We don’t do, nobody lives like this. This is how we’re treating children that we have in our custody in South Carolina.”

Shealy said she met Michael Dempsey while on the tour. He’s the Executive Director of the Council of Juvenile Justice Administrators. Dempsey confirmed the meeting.

He expressed a willingness to speak with WIS about the tour so long as Pough allowed. Dempsey cited confidentiality clauses in his contract as part of his presence there.

Department spokesperson Jarid Munsch told WIS the department declined to give Dempsey permission to speak.

The department sent WIS multiple statements relating to the feces concerns. On Aug. 5, the department sent the following statement:

As previously shared, one of the ways the agency accommodated for current staffing shortages and to best ensure staff-to-youth ratios was to consolidate a number of youth to one living unit. The most suitable location also happens to be one of the older units on campus. As with older buildings, plumbing and other maintenance issues can and do come up. After speaking with many staff who work in or frequent that unit, there was one noted recent sewage drain back-up. It was last week in the laundry/storage room, and there was some standing water. To be abundantly clear, the drain clog was not in any living spaces where youth reside. DJJ maintenance responded shortly after it was reported, and was able to get the standing water drained. A day or two later, a contracted plumbing crew came out to fully flush the pipes of any residual blockages.

Now, there have been instances over the past month where youth have acted out in very unhygienic ways, which obviously creates odors and dirty conditions. The agency identified a need to increase its contracted deep cleaning services to combat this, as sanitation became a concern. Cleaning crews have been on-site as recently as today to help us get the unit back to the desired environment for youth and staff alike.

After WIS asked for more details on the timeline of the issue, the department sent a second statement on Aug. 10:

First, regarding maintenance work on the sewer system in Laurel Unit… On the morning of Wednesday, July 28th, Institutional Services notified Maintenance of a sewer stoppage in a storage/laundry room. DJJ maintenance staff was dispatched and found a floor drain with some standing water. They were able to unclog the stoppage and water was again able to flow down the drain within hours of the initial call. DJJ then called in a company to fully jet out the lines to make sure the sewer line was completely cleared. They completed their work on July 30th.

Since May, the only other maintenance work order in Laurel was submitted on June 11th. Maintenance responded that afternoon and attempted to unclog a floor drain on one of the wings. Unable to do so, two different companies were called in to complete the work, and the drain was successfully unclogged on June 15th.

For context, DJJ Policy 108: Maintenance of SCDJJ Facilities states “SCDJJ staff will be responsible to report maintenance deficiencies, problems or faults in areas where they are assigned.” Since May, these are the two maintenance problems that have been reported.

Manpower woes

The DJJ brought in 40 security officers from Allied Universal Security after the walk-out to address its manpower shortage.

The July 27 department statement reads in part:

[Allied Security officers] are receiving specialized training to work support posts (non-direct care) at BRRC. These posts are the front gate, control rooms and internal transport. By doing this, it frees up our JCOs assigned to those roles to instead provide added direct-care supervision of our youth. Allied handles the recruitment and hiring of their people. DJJ then provides the specialized training for work at those posts. Allied staff are already on campus fulfilling the above-mentioned duties, and more Allied personnel are in the process of being trained.

Dyckes said the introduction of Allied Security officers has helped alleviate some pressure.

“It has been a minor help. It does cut back on staff working 24 hours. I’m happy to see Allied staff here, to help out. They’ve been real supportive on the limited things they can do. So, by them being in the position they are, it does help out,” he said.

However, he said retention of officers remains an issue, and the number of security staffers has dropped since the walk-out.

“If you’ve got two staff coming in and three quitting, you’re still going to be at a deficit. So that’s not going good,” he said.

Laws again echoed Dyckes assessment of declining security manpower.

“I don’t feel secure. I feel, number one, I feel like my life is in danger. I feel like my safety and my health is in danger,” he said.

He said the lack of security is impeding his students’ ability to be transported to his class.

Laws estimated he’s only seeing some students one day out of the week “at most.”

“If we’re lucky we might see them for an hour. If not, we may see them for 15 minutes. This is the norm,” he said.

The July 27 DJJ statement highlights recruitment and retention efforts underway:

To help with recruitment and retention, we’ve bolstered our sign-on and referral bonuses for critical-need positions. Signing bonuses are now up to $10,000, depending on the position. We also rolled out retention bonuses to current frontline staff as a way to help while we still – year after year – advocate for more substantial salary increases for our frontline workers. Some of these bonus incentives were already in place or being planned before the walk-out in June. Join Team DJJ! | South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (sc.gov) is our recruitment webpage on our website that prominently displays all bonus and hiring event information. It’s updated regularly to reflect new hiring events. Speaking of, in June, we held more than a dozen hiring events across the state to fill critical-need positions. Here in July, we’re hosting several more. We can use all the help we can get to promote each and every one of these hiring events. We are still in a staffing shortage in areas such as JCOs, nurses, social workers and psychologists. Nationwide, many sectors of the workforce are experiencing incredible staffing shortages. We understand that, while this current workforce shortage is not unique to DJJ, it creates unique challenges for a child-serving agency such as ours. We are committed to overcoming it.

We’re also investing in more advertising to promote career opportunities at DJJ. This includes radio advertising (currently working on the content for those), and we purchased billboard space in multiple regions of the state to highlight our robust signing bonuses.

Low morale

Dyckes and Laws alleged morale remains low at the facility despite the department’s efforts.

“Same as always. Staff still, no morale. People are just sad when they come to work,” Dyckes said.

Multiple sources provided WIS a memo sent to DJJ staff on July 2. The memo was sent via email, subject lined “Abandonment of Post Memorandum.”

It laid out a series of policies that walking off the job would violate.

You can read the full memo here.

One line reads:

Unprofessional conduct, incompatible activities, unethical conduct, criminal indictments, or other employee behavior having protentional or actual detriment to the department or its image, conduct can occur on or off the job

“To me that was a scare tactic, to intimidate staff, but it’s alright for y’all to still work staff like slaves, 24 hours, 25 hours, and that is still going on,” Dyckes said.

Laws said he interpreted the email as an effort to quiet public protests of the department.

“A lot of people are afraid that if they speak out, that they’re going to lose their job, and the American workers, okay, should not be afraid of your job for telling the truth,” he said. “I was told I now have a bullseye on my back.”

The Aug. 5 DJJ statement addressed the memo:

The July 2nd email regarding Abandonment of Post is about exactly that, and any other interpretations are a stretch. From the Subject Line all the way through, the purpose for the email is clear. On-the-job and off-the-job behavior is always a consideration for any employees and employer, and we will continue to hold staff to those standards. The email was crafted with the assistance of State HR to remind staff of those fundamental expectations.

Laws said there has been a failure of two-way communication between the administration and staffers. However, he did state Pough has been more visible on-site.

“He’s been back numerous times. I’ll give him that,” he said.

Ultimately, both Dyckes and Laws said the department needs leadership change.

The July 27 DJJ statement reads in part:

One of the things Director Pough has been very focused on is improving communication by providing more opportunities to hear from staff and inviting them to provide feedback and input on solutions. Director already meets monthly with his “Director’s Roundtable.” That group is comprised of frontline staff across all divisions/offices. They meet monthly for six months. Then, a new group is invited for fresh ideas and perspective. He has now created and is meeting weekly with his “Director’s Managers Roundtable.” It’s the same concept, but at the next layer up. These are not executive or senior-level managers. This first group of managers are all from the Broad River Road Complex, as that’s where much of the focus is to improve and create culture change. This group will also rotate every 6 months to ensure we maximize the opportunity for other managers to participate.

Something that’s many, many months in the making is our alliance with the Children’s Center for Law and Policy (CCLP). This is the news release we sent out in early April announcing the alliance - DJJ Takes Step Toward Juvenile Justice Reform in SC (mailchi.mp). The folks with CCLP have already been on campus to talk with staff and observe where we are as an agency, and we are beyond thrilled to have their expertise and guidance. They are national experts in juvenile justice reform and helping juvenile justice agencies improve culture, policies and procedures, recruitment and more.

So, between bonuses, advocating for salary increases, bringing in contract workers to alleviate the staffing shortage, adjusting day-to-day movement, increasing communication between all levels of the agency, ramping up advertising, dramatically increasing the number of hiring events and forming long-term partnerships with national experts, DJJ continues to do all it can to create the best child-serving agency possible for youth and families, as well as those who serve as members of Team DJJ.

The path forward

Governor Henry McMaster has resisted calls to replace Pough and instructed SLED and the Department of Administration to review DJJ policies.

RELATED STORY >> McMaster directs SLED, Department of Administration to review DJJ policies

Laws said he and the juveniles would like Governor Henry McMaster to visit the facility unannounced to see firsthand the state of the problem.

“They don’t want him to call and say two weeks in advance I’m going to be here. They’d like for him just to show up at the gate like Senator Katrina Shealy did,” he said.

On July 28, McMaster did state the process of improving the department is ongoing.

“We’re getting information back, and we are going to make substantial improvements, if and anywhere those are necessary,” he said.

The governor’s spokesperson, Brian Symmes, said the governor is “acutely aware” of the situation, and improving the DJJ is a top priority. Symmes said the SLED audit is expected to be complete soon while the DOA audit is ongoing.

SLED’s spokesperson Tommy Crosby sent a statement on July 21 reading: SLED’s thorough review continues at this time. Our findings will be provided to the Governor once complete.

Department of Administration spokesperson Kelly Coakley sent a WIS a statement as well, citing progress made on the department’s recruitment and HR procedures.

Shealy said she has discontinued talks with McMaster on the issue due to a lack of changes and said there could be future subcommittee meetings on the department in the future.

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