COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A group of state senators investigating South Carolina's juvenile prison system voted Wednesday that they have no confidence in Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough.
The vote by a Senate subcommittee came after a four-hour hearing where six current and former agency employees — both teachers and jail officers — testified that conditions keep getting worse for the 80 or so young people either serving time for crimes or awaiting trial at the state's main juvenile prison in Columbia.
The hearing was five days after many of those workers joined about 20 others and walked out of the juvenile prison in protest over low pay and morale, increasing violence between inmates and against staff, as well as paper-thin staffing levels in which employees have sometimes had to work 24- to 36-hour shifts without breaks due to the fact that so many of their coworkers have already quit.
“Does everybody need raises? Of course. We all need it. But at the end of the day we’ve got to hold people accountable. There’s no amount of money that you can pay anybody to sit up here and allow them to bust them in the head day after day," said David Roberts, a captain with the agency.
Pough sat directly behind the podium where the employees spoke. He refused to resign Wednesday when asked if he would quit, just like he did at a hearing last month.
Pough, who has led DJJ since 2017, said he has to change the culture at the agency, and that is going to take time.
"The issues that the staff were upset about Friday have been going on a long time," Pough said. "I’ll reaffirm I am committed to fixing this.”
The decision by the employees to speak out directly in Pugh's presence made an impact on state Sen. Brian Adams, who worked as a police officer in North Charleston before retiring in 2018,
“What really struck me is you had command staff come up and speak in front of you. And that took guts," said Adams, a Republican from Goose Creek. “I don’t think I could ever see myself stand up in front of my chief and telling other people what they’re doing wrong.”
Lawmakers called hearings after a scathing report released in April by the Legislative Audit Council found a significant increase in violence, problems getting timely medical care and excessive use of isolation as punishment, with some students even missing testing to get high school diplomas because they were locked up by themselves.
Gov. Henry McMaster chose Pough to run the agency and is the only person who can fire him. His office issued a statement Wednesday that didn't include Pough's name or a mention of support, but said private security would help immediately with staffing shortages. The statement also outlines pay increases and signing bonuses in next year's budget and a promise to pay staffers for overtime instead of offering them comp time.
“The department’s struggle with staffing, pay, and retention is not unique. Criminal justice and law enforcement agencies in the state have been dealing with recruitment and retention problems for years," McMaster spokesperson Brian Symmes said in the statement.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian asked Pough to quit for a second time. The director refused. Harpootlian said it was obvious employees and senators have lost faith in him.
“I understand you don’t want to back off from a job you think you can do. But the proof is in the puddling, there is no evidence here you've accomplished anything except a 57% increase in violence," said Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat.
A woman whose daughter is in DJJ custody also testified Wednesday. She said a fellow juvenile inmate tried to hang herself because conditions were so bad. She gave her name in testimony, but in order to avoid identifying her daughter, The Associated Press is not naming the woman.
“I need you to put this place on blast," the mother said, reading from her daughter's letters. “I need you to go to the director — the man that is over all of DJJ. This is going to be like Mission Impossible, Mom, but you’re smart and you are going to know what to do."
The mother said Pough has ignored her. Then she turned around and confronted the director and he took the letters she shoved in his direction.
“Read the letters,” the mother said. “They trusted you. And you failed them."
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.