Confusion as Richland County announces plan to close troubled jail’s juvenile wing

Richland County Council is advancing a plan to close the juvenile wing of the county jail, a plan that’s apparently taken law enforcement officials by surprise as the county continues to try to improve a facility that is under state and federal scrutiny for understaffing, neglect and violence.

The plan was approved by the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center ad hoc committee Tuesday with little warning to law enforcement partners or lawmakers. If approved by the full council, the 27 juveniles currently housed in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center will be moved to the state Department of Juvenile Justice, county administrators told council members Tuesday.

Richland County Administrator Leonardo Brown said the county does not have a statutory obligation to house juveniles and closing the facility would free up the 14 staff members currently working in the juvenile wing to help address other pressing concerns at the jail.

“It does not make sense for us to continue to stand up an operation that we don’t have direct responsibility for knowing that there is already an identified staffing issue at our facility,” Brown said. “We’re picking up ancillary duties that are not our charge, which is leading to additional stress on our system that we’re responsible for.”

County officials said they would be following a model set by Greenville, which recently closed its juvenile jail facility. Currently, Richland and Charleston are the only South Carolina counties that still operate their own juvenile detention facilities.

But the move came as a surprise to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Department spokesperson Michelle Foster said that they only found out about Richland County’s plans Tuesday.

“Our facilities are already extremely overcrowded, and adding additional youth to facilities, it just exacerbates those overcrowded conditions,” Foster said. The $50 daily cost paid by counties to DJJ for each child housed was not sufficient to cover costs, Foster said.

Asked if there is anything the state is prepared to do to help keep the juveniles at the Richland County facility, Foster said the agency was not prepared to issue a statement on that.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, a prominent defense attorney, said he estimated that the daily cost to house juveniles should be “closer to $300 or $400 per day, not $50.”

“Kudos to Richland County for continuing to take care of juveniles for as long as they have. People like me who defend juveniles and who are in that facility all the time did not realize that it was not an obligation that they had to undertake,” Rutherford said. “I just wish that as a lawmaker we could have been given a heads up so that we could have allocated funding. ... DJJ cannot house another 27 juveniles. There have been days where they are double capacity.”

Both Columbia Police Department Chief Skip Holbrook and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said said they were not informed in advance about the county administration’s plan.

“It impacts us a good bit. It would’ve been nice for them to consult us,” Lott said. While the Richland County Sheriff’s Department does not run the jail, Lott said that the closure of the facility, built in 1993, would increase the time required for his deputies to transport juvenile offenders.

“I don’t think that anybody’s gone back and looked at why Richland County built the facility in the first place,” Lott said.

In his remarks before the ad hoc committee, Brown acknowledged that closing the facility was a tough conversation but argued it was in the county’s best interests.

“We’re being courteous, we’re being considerate, we’re talking through it,” Brown said. “My understanding is that today, as you and I sit here now, it is not the responsibility of Richland County. You would want to have good relationships, but we do not have to house juveniles.”

The jail has seen improvements over the past year following critical reports from the South Carolina Department of Corrections and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

A recent letter from Scott Bolman, the director of jail and prison inspections at the Department of Corrections, noted that “impressive” upgrades were being made to living facilities, security and health and hygiene at Alvin S. Glenn.

“There is a definite difference being made, and the facility is certainly on the right track,” Bolman wrote.

While Rutherford acknowledged the closure of the juvenile facility may be necessary to continue improvements to the jail, he said lawmakers and officials should carefully consider the consequences of the plan.

“The overriding theme here has got to be these are innocent children, they have not been convicted of anything,” Rutherford said. “We forget that as we talk about jails.”