News 12 sits down exclusively with retiring DJJ commissioner following 'dark days' after deadly beating

By: Sheli Muniz Email
By: Sheli Muniz Email
News 12 sits down exclusively with retiring DJJ commissioner (WRDW-TV, October 3, 2012)

News 12 sits down exclusively with retiring DJJ commissioner (WRDW-TV, October 3, 2012)

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012

ATLANTA, Ga. -- News 12 sat down exclusively with the woman brought in to clean up the mess at Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice.

Gale Buckner took over after the death of an inmate at Augusta's YDC. That murder sparked a News 12 investigation that exposed a system-wide problem.

Now, not even a year after she took over, the commissioner is retiring.

The investigation began last November when 19-year-old Jade Holder was beaten to death. The murder was the first of its kind for the state's juvenile justice system.

It also revealed problem after problem at Augusta's YDC from cases of employee misconduct to contraband to alleged sexual relationships.

Just days after that murder, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Buckner as the new commissioner. She then either fired or suspended more than a dozen employees just at the Augusta campus.

Now, Buckner says it's time for her to go. She is stepping down on Nov. 1.

At Wednesday's meeting, the board said Buckner came in during the dark days following that murder in Augusta, but she has been at the helm for less than a year and already leaving?

Buckner told News 12, "Are things perfect today? No. Are they 100 percent better than they were a year ago? Most definitely."

Buckner will be the first one to tell you that the department she inherited last November was in a crisis.

"We had not focused in the past as strongly as we needed to on safety and security issues," Buckner said.

Several News 12 reports revealed that as those from the inside spoke out, "The youth dictate to the guards what they will and will not do," said in a November 2011 interview.

At the Augusta YDC, sweeping changes started with the firing of Director John Brady in December.

Buckner said, "Sheli, you know that early on the first of December we started a task force that visited within about a six-week period over the holidays made unannounced visits to all of our secure sites."

In fact, one of those surprise visits led to this, "I want to announce the termination of two initial employees here at the Augusta YDC," Buckner announced during a news conference in January.

A short time after, a team of three was brought in.

Assistant Director of Programs for Augusta YDC Aisha Hunter said in March, "I'm looking forward to working with my new counterparts in rebuilding Augusta YDC."

Assistant Director of Security at Augusta's YDC Melvin Womble said in March, "And try to make it not one of the best youth development centers in the state of Georgia."

A News 12 report also opened up a contraband investigation.

"Whether it be cellphones, whether it be charges for the cellphones, whether it be weapons, or money or food items. We put some methods into place to contain that," Buckner said.

A new law making contraband a crime is helping. Some say the dust has settled with sweeping changes since the dark days, but just as things are taking a brighter turn, News 12's Sheli Muniz asked, "A year later, are you giving up on us?"

Buckner responded, "Definitely not, it's been a long and challenging year, but this agency has risen to the challenge to find the problems that needed to be addressed and to find the solution."

A year ago, it was her promise to find those solutions. Now, she looks to fulfill a personal promise.

"I feel very comfortable that this is a good time to go ahead and make good on that promise to retire and make my new career in county government," she said.

Buckner now heads to work as chief magistrate for Murray County. She says she was a month away from retiring last year until Gov. Deal asked her to step in.

The department has been criticized for the high turnover of officers and News 12 asked her about how her departure reflected on the instability at the top, she said she wouldn't leave the agency if she wasn't confident the board, which she helped put together, could continue its work without her.

The board unanimously selected Avery Niles as the interim commissioner on Wednesday. Read more here.

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