The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) that will include probing the evaluation and incarceration of youth with disabilities, the Charleston Post and Courier reports. About 40 percent of juveniles sent to DJJ’s Columbia detention center qualify for special education services. Child advocates have pressed for an investigation for at least two years, said Susan Dunn of the American Civil Liberties Union. An investigation is critical to ensure the safety of staff and juveniles involved in more than 15,000 cases each year, she said. “This is a system that really needs assistance,” Dunn said. “It seems like we have avoided an objective evaluation of the place.”
The news comes less than a week after the Post and Courier published an investigation into the state’s wilderness camps that exposed a web of secrecy that shrouds deaths and assaults at the camps and the agency’s failure to track them. DOJ officials will look at security issues at the Broad River Road prison and at centers where thousands of youth are locked up each year to undergo court-ordered evaluations. That likely will include probing the number of youth placed in solitary confinement and the length of time they spend there. The state’s Legislative Audit Council issued a sharp rebuke of the state agency this year. Auditors wrote that they “did not find convincing evidence that [the state] is adequately prepared to respond to major disturbances in its facilities.” They faulted the state for not investigating allegations of foul play after a teenager died at one of its wilderness camps, among other criticisms. The agency director resigned the next day. Riots at the main state prison in 2015 and 2016 raised lawmakers’ alarm.