COLUMBIA, S.C. — Security changes at the Department of Juvenile Justice’s main prison after a February riot include searching inmates head-to-toe when their visitors leave and allowing its police force to carry pepper spray, agency spokesman Patrick Montgomery said Wednesday.
Legislators reviewing the troubled agency suggested the prison’s other officers carry pepper spray as well. They scoffed at guards being able to regain control only through their voice or hands.
Alternative sentencing has left the most violent juveniles “behind the wire” at the Broad River Road complex, said Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville. About 100 juveniles are serving time there, compared with 400 a decade ago.
“We have the more severe juveniles located out there. A lot of these have committed major crimes, and the only way you’re going to de-escalate things is by verbal — ‘Hey, you, stop’?” Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenville, asked a DJJ consultant. “When you have, say, a fellow 260 pounds and a female (officer) 130 pounds, the only thing she can use is verbal and her hands? Is that what you’re saying?”
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, added, “Asking him to stop nicely has not generally worked in the past.”
But Larry Reid of Correctional Consulting Services said arming officers with pepper spray is not among his report’s 110 recommendations. However, if the agency decides to do so, only officers certified in using the spray should carry it, he said.
Fair questioned why officers needed special training in a non-lethal weapon anyone else can buy over the counter.
Because controlling juveniles through pepper spray creates opportunity for misuse and lawsuits, Reid said.
Montgomery said pepper spray has been used only once since the prison’s 21-officer police force received authority in May.
A teenager was sprayed June 23 after breaking a fire alarm, causing the cell to flood, and threatening staff. DJJ police officers used the spray after the teen refused to leave his cell, Montgomery said.
What Reid did recommend is unknown. He broadly referred to security measures that address issues such as policy deficiencies and demoralized staff, but he provided no details of the report the agency received in June. He told legislators a redacted version could be available next week.
Director Sylvia Murray said the agency has addressed about 35 percent of those unspecified recommendations. Hires include a gang intervention specialist, she said. Legislators have been critical about that job going unfilled for a year.
Three riots at the Columbia prison in eight months involved fire and destroyed property, but it was the one in February that got legislators’ attention. Charges against juveniles who rioted include attempted sexual assault and burglary for breaking into the girls’ dorm, attempted murder to trying to run someone over in a car and arson for setting toilet paper on fire.
Sen. Katrina Shealy asked about two juveniles taken to a hospital Aug. 19.
The teens took prescription medication someone had “cheeked,” or held in the back of the mouth rather than swallowed, Murray said.
“Nurses are supposed to look thoroughly in a juvenile’s mouth to make sure they indeed swallowed their medication. That process has been re-emphasized,” she said.
The teens were transported after officers found them not breathing properly. They were back in their cell later that day, Montgomery said. He didn’t know what they ingested.
Reducing contraband — which refers to anything prisoners are not supposed to have, from makeshift weapons to food — through searches has been a major improvement, Montgomery said.
Those efforts include “head-to-toe” searches of juveniles after they meet with family, searching any vehicle that goes through the prison gate and requiring staff to lock their car doors, he said.