The State, May 6, 2000
Youth jailers allowed to use force, judge says,
By Clif LeBlanc, Staff Writer
(South Carolina) Jailers in the state juvenile prison system must know they have the authority to use appropriate force to control violent youngsters, a federal judge said Friday.
Judge Joe Anderson said guards are unaware that the Juvenile Justice Department allows them to use physical force and chemical sprays to control violent children. He ordered agency officials to be sure jailers know the policy.
Beyond that, Anderson said he was unconvinced that violence in juvenile prisons is out of control and requires more jailers. Lawyers for the youngsters argued in hearings that started last month that violence had reached unconstitutionally high levels.
"The evidence is not clear enough for me to make a determination," Anderson said. "We'll come back in six months and take a fresh look."
In the meantime, Anderson suggested agency leaders find ways to better monitor the problem, perhaps with video cameras. He also directed his hand-picked watchdog -- a former FBI agent -- to conduct frequent inspections of the prison system.
That was the outcome of the hearings that ended Friday.
The judge was concerned that jailers believe they are banned for "laying a hand" on young offenders.
"There's a feeling that permeates this entire group that they can't take aggressive action,'' testified Tommy Davis, the court-appointed watchdog. "You've got to be aggressive with this population.''
After Anderson's ruling, agency director Gina Wood said she was pleased. "It is testimony that there is not an emergency,'' she said.
Lawyers who asked Anderson to intervene said the agency's own figures show that 10 teen-agers were raped in the last six months of 1999. Another 1,200 were hurt in fights and taken to prison infirmaries between January and November 1999.
The problem is more severe than that and getting worse, attorneys Gaston Fairey and Chris Mills said.
"I think there is ample evidence that documents were withheld ... in an attempt to mislead this court,'' Fairey told Anderson.
"We submit to you that you now have a duty, legally, morally, constitutionally, to act,'' Fairey said.
The department counters that fewer than 2 percent of the 1,000 children in its 15 major facilities suffered even "potentially serious" injuries last year.
More recently, 98 percent of the youngsters who went to agency infirmaries in March were treated and returned to their dormitories. Those numbers are below the national average, said Will Davidson, an attorney hired to defend the agency.
Most of the hurt children needed what Davidson dubbed "mother care.''
"The evidence doesn't rise to the level of constitutional deprivation," he argued in his closing statement.
Fairey also accused the agency of "bad faith'' because Wood did not disclose that some of her own staffers recommended a jailer-to-child ratio of 1-to-10.
"If there was ever an abdication of responsibility, this is it,'' Fairey said. He estimates the current jailer-to-child ratio is 1-to-20.
Wood told reporters the 1-to-10 recommendation was merely an internal conversation.
She never requested the more than 400 additional jailers it would take to reach that ratio. It would cost roughly $7 million, Davidson said.
The prison system houses children ages 12 to 18 convicted of serious crimes, including murder, rape and other violent offenses.
Clif LeBlanc covers federal courts and federal agencies. He can be reached at (803) 771-8664 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.