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Aug. 17, 2020

Charleston Juvenile Detention Center Moves Kids Out After Nelson Mullins Team Sues Over Bad Conditions

CHARLESTON, S.C. – A pro bono lawsuit brought by Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough for its client Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A) has resulted in closure of a 50-year-old juvenile detention center in Charleston, SC. The children housed in the old facility were moved to the fourth floor of the adult detention center on Aug. 11, less than a month after the lawsuit was filed against Charleston County officials and the school district over alleged unconstitutional conditions at the Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC).

The legal team representing P&A consists of Nelson Mullins Charleston partners Robert Brunson, Patrick Wooten, and Andrew Connor; Columbia partner Stuart Andrews; and Charleston paralegal Lauren Lynch. The Nelson Mullins team is co-counsel with former Charleston County Assistant Public Defender Annie Andrews, who is now in private practice.

The complaint filed on July 25 names Charleston County Sheriff J. Al Cannon, Jr., Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, Chief Deputy Willis Beatty, and the Charleston County School District as the responsible parties for the "medieval" conditions of the facility and its "'deliberate indifference toward an allegedly inhumane environment."

In support of the lawsuit, Nelson Mullins and a retained expert witness have interviewed over 50 children and families of children who have been detained in the facility in recent years. These interviews yielded horrific stories of children being restricted to solitary confinement for extended periods, use of a “restraint chair” for hours at a time to subdue and punish children, and deprivation of meaningful healthcare, including prescribed medications. Sometimes the solitary confinement would take place in a small, windowless room with no bed or toilet. This room is known as the “wet cell.” Children also reported and the lawsuit alleges use of excessive force against unarmed children, including firing of rubber bullets and bean bags at children, administration of pepper spray, and use of tasers.

The lawsuit also alleges the facility does not provide the state-required 30 hours a week of education, nor does it provide proper individualized instruction for the many children in the center who require special education.

The complaint asserts, "These practices not only fail to achieve the goal of rehabilitation, but they sabotage it, causing irreparable damage not only to the most fragile members of our society at the most vulnerable times in their lives, but to society itself because of the heightened risk that these Children will become permanently trapped in a cycle of crime."

P&A is also seeking a preliminary injunction to stop many of the alleged unconstitutional practices while the case is being litigated, as well as a monitor to oversee any injunctive relief the court may order.

Lead counsel for the Sheriff’s Office defendants, Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, commented that "This complaint against the sheriff ’s office is 99% false and provably so with video and photographic evidence.” In a statement to The Post and Courier, Sen. Senn said, “Everything that can be remedied at the juvenile facility already has been remedied, and the rest will be fixed in October 2021 when the new juvenile center is finished being built.”

Reports surfaced on Aug. 11 that the children were being moved out of the CCJDC and into a more open-space layout on the fourth floor of the nearby adult detention center.

Nelson Mullins partner and lead counsel for P&A, Robert Brunson, commented that moving the children is “a step in the right direction,” but he emphasized that the lawsuit is not just about the building. “It is about making sure that these vulnerable and often disabled children entrusted to the County are not kept in solitary confinement or put in a restraint chair as a punishment, and that they are not exposed to excessive force, such as through the use of rubber bullets and tasers. It is also about making sure these children receive essential mental health medication and services, adequate medical care, proper programming, access to the outdoors, and grade level education. Many of these children require special education and have individual education plans which must continue to be followed while they are in this facility, but that has not been occurring.”

The lawsuit is pending before Judge David C. Norton in Charleston, S.C Federal Court. A formal response to the allegations is expected in September, and a hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction is expected later this year.

To view the full complaint, click here. To view the Post and Courier coverage from March 2020, subscribers may click here. To view the Post and Courier coverage from July 2020, subscribers may click here.