DJJ asks for $30M for new detention center, saying current facility overcrowded and ‘not safe’

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Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 7:38 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Last year, Department of Juvenile Justice Executive Director Eden Hendrick caught some state lawmakers by surprise when she didn’t ask them for much from the budget outside of normal operating costs, saying in her first year leading the beleaguered department, she wanted to focus on figuring out what it needed most.

This year, Hendrick returned to lawmakers with a big request: nearly $30 million to build a new juvenile detention center in Columbia.

“Right now, the state of our facilities, they’re not secure and they’re not safe unless we have — we are constantly trying to make changes and constantly trying to make upgrades, always focused on safety and security. They were designed for a different population and a different time,” Hendrick told a House of Representatives subcommittee last week.

Hendrick said the current juvenile detention center was built in 2001 and designed to hold 72 children and teens as they awaited their trial for no more than 30 days.

But it has been way over capacity, averaging 126 individuals in the detention center last November. Last week, that was down to 109, still significantly higher than the 72 it was slated for.

“It’s hard to portray a picture of how really crowded it is until you’re there,” Hendrick said. “So in the cells, they have toilets in their cells, so in order for a youth who doesn’t have a room to use the bathroom, someone has to come out.”

The department does not expect those numbers to drop, with Hendrick saying juvenile arrest rates are up post-COVID. She also attributed this increase to a state law that went into effect in 2019, which now keeps more teens under DJJ’s oversight instead of in adult jails.

The new detention center would be built to fit that higher capacity.

In other states, the detention facilities where juveniles are housed before their trials are under counties’ operations, Hendrick said.

But only Richland and Charleston counties have juvenile detention wings in South Carolina, as Greenville’s closed last year, so the state has determined DJJ oversees everyone else at its detention center in Columbia.

“We are now serving the whole state, so we really think it is necessary to have a new building,” Hendrick said.

Just in the last several months, violent incidents, including an October riot, have sent DJJ staff and juveniles to the hospital.

“Will the new building cut down on the riots?” Rep. Dennis Moss, R – Cherokee and a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, asked.

“The new jail? Everything we’re doing is designed to cut down on the riots,” Hendrick said. “Every move I make, every sentence I speak, everything we’re doing is trying to cut down on the riots. Every program, every facility upgrade, every staffing, we’re trying to cut down on that.”

But she said staffing continues to be a major issue, describing it to the House subcommittee as a crisis. Worker shortages, particularly among juvenile corrections officers, have plagued the department for years.

“Really it comes down to staffing, and it’s really hard to recruit and retain staff when your facilities are terrible,” Hendrick said.

DJJ staff have been visiting other detention centers across the country to see how other states model theirs, with Hendrick saying a new one in South Carolina would look more like a school than the current facility.

The department is also asking for another $41 million to repair and refurbish other facilities besides the detention center, detailing some were built in the 1950s and have had extensive use but minimal upkeep since then.

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