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I-TEAM: Viral video just one part of story in Richmond County Detention Center fight

Published: Nov. 9, 2020 at 7:37 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga (WRDW/WAGT) - A teenage inmate is transferred from the Richmond County Youth Detention Center and an officer is fired following a viral video on social media and subsequent investigation by the I-Team.

The family of the inmate at the Richmond County Youth Detention Center says the facility is mismanaged and they worry for the safety of all youths inside the detention center.

“To put it into perspective, it’s almost like you lost a child,” Tyree McCladdie said. His wife, Tonya McCladdie, agrees and both parents posted a viral video this summer of them outside the RYDC trying to get answers on their son’s physical condition after other inmates called them -- not the facility staff members -- to say their son was unconscious after being hit by a guard during an altercation inside.

We obtained this security video from June 12. The five-minute-long clip does not have any sound, but it does show what happened to their son. He is sitting in a common area of the detention center and then abruptly jumps up, takes a defensive stance, and looks toward something or someone out of frame. Within seconds, another inmate is seen charging toward the McCladdie’s son.

They fight.

Two more youths jump in. They, including the McCladdie’s son, all appear to take swings at the inmate who first charged in.

A female officer then intervenes. She is struck several times while trying to break up the fight. The McCladdie’s son walks away to remove his shirt and then comes back to the fight. After about a minute into the altercation, two more officers arrive; one of them is Travian Roberson.

Some inmates try to scatter, but Roberson grabs the McCladdie’s son and locks his arm around the youth’s neck before slamming him to the ground.

Next, the youth appears to be unresponsive; no aid is immediately rendered.

Officials did not confirm if the teen ever lost consciousness but in the Facebook live video that sparked our investigation, the family can be heard saying they received calls from inmates who told them their son was unconscious.

We obtained the DJJ supervisor review of this incident. The onsite nurse states, “I heard the other children saying (it)...When he came to me he was alert, he didn’t come to me right after the fight"

Two days after we started asking questions, the Department of Juvenile Justice fired Officer Roberson for the “unauthorized technique” used as “improper physical intervention.”

The incident caught on camera raises security questions for the juvenile inmates and the staff. The culture seen this day on camera, was merely a snapshot of life every day at RYDC, according to the McCladdie’s.

“Before this incident happened on Saturday, we received a phone call from an anonymous number that my son was going to be stabbed to death on Friday," McCladdie said.

The parents recall every complaint they made to DJJ and every call to the sheriff’s office.

“I feel if my son was put in protective custody, none of this would have happened," McCladdie said.

We found two records on file at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office: an incident report for this fight on June 12 and another incident from 2019. Back then, the McCladdie’s told deputies three boys beat their son.

Records reveal at least six emails between the parents and DJJ. We also uncovered three formal complaints they filed with DJJ -- all in reference to “staff conduct”, “safety”, or “assault.”

“He’s having to protect himself more in the facility than he has to do on the street...and that’s just being honest” explains Tyree McCladdie. The parents believe they know why their son was repeatedly targeted.

“They call him suburb kid,” says Tonya. They describe the detention center and its staff as unchecked and unaccountable.

Weobtained the terminated officers' personnel file. Officer Roberson was cited 7 times in two years for:

  • placing a youth in a rear chokehold
  • observing a youth enter another’s shower but took no action..walking off while the two youth remained" where a “physical altercation did ensue”
  • hitting a youth on his back
  • sleeping on the job with youth under his supervision
  • in violation of security check of doors
  • in violation of youth movement/traffic
  • the officer’s supervisor emphasizes the prison rape elimination act

We also found Roberson was reprimanded when a youth pried open the medical window and stole a lancet from the clinic while he was standing next to the youth. A search was not conducted later.

These same infractions we found this year mirror similar accusations that contributed to the dangerous incidents we exposed nine years ago.

From 2011 to 2012, five inmates escaped, there was a murder at the site, and there were reports of repeated assaults.

The I-Team uncovered a lawsuit the DJJ recently settled from a 2011 case for $1.5 million in taxpayer money.

It alleged correctional officers “knew younger, vulnerable residents were at great risk of violence if left unsupervised” and staff “had knowledge of the rampant physical and sexual abuse occurring” but "were deliberately indifferent to safety and security of Augusta residents.” They also “permitted the custom and practice of inadequately classifying and segregating residents, creating an unconstitutionally dangerous environment.”

We asked the Department of Juvenile Justice for an interview. At first, they even agreed to do so. But they later backed out. We told them we wanted to talk about safety, security, and oversight of officers' conduct. We specifically said we’d like to address any improvement DJJ made since 2011.

They then denied our interview request but sent us these lengthy responses saying in part:

There is additional on the job training specific to their facility, staff use a positive approach to build healthy relationships, and DJJ utilizes a process of progressive discipline for staff.

The system’s goal is to develop and retain our staff.

Community activist Larry Fryer spent years going into the detention center to talk intervention with youth inmates.

“Not only are we looking at their future, we’re looking at ours," Fryer said.

Fryer believes their lives can be salvaged. He has the success stories to prove it like a former youth inmate who just recently completed his sentence.

“He was able to get his life turned around, he’s getting married. He’s working and he’s looking to do a very good thing. You can teach me all you want, but the way you make me feel is all I’m going to remember, so it’s how they treat them. When those kids know that you care, that you’re trying to help them, then they certainly have the opportunity to have a better life.”

For Tonya, the stakes are huge.

“They’re still human beings," Tonya said. "Because they made a mistake, that don’t mean throw them there and let them die or kill each other.”

Previous audits of the DJJ found there is a high turnover rate of correctional officers and that “DJJ has difficulty identifying and retaining quality officers.”

If history is any indication, the youth detention needs qualified staff not only for the sake of the facility,

but the lives that eventually go on beyond it.

“At the rate the system is going, when a child is entering that facility, he’s going to come out worse," Tyree said.

The McCladdie’s son has since been transferred to another youth detention facility following the incident.

We reached out to Officer Roberson several times for his side of the story on the incident, he declined to interview with us for this report.

Full Statement from the Department of Juvenile Justice

Standards for Hiring Correctional Officers Salaries for Juvenile Correctional Officers:

To be considered for any DJJ correctional position, applicants must meet the following entry requirements:

· 18 years of age or older

· High School Diploma or G.E.D.

· U.S. Citizenship

· No felony convictions

· Valid Driver’s License (provide a copy with application)

· Successful completion of background check, pre-employment drug screening, and physical examination

· Receive a passing score on the P.O.S.T. approved COMPASS Test. The COMPASS test is administered through the Georgia Technical College System.

· Applicants who have obtained a four-year degree from an accredited college or university OR have previously been POST-certified are exempt from taking the COMPASS test.

The salary for a JCO1 is $27,936. After one year of service, the employee becomes a JCO2 with a salary of $31,040. DJJ offers a one-time Military Salary Increase Incentive to current/former military service members on eligible job titles, who have served on active duty. To be eligible, service members must have an Honorable Discharge. The one-time incentive will be based upon the current number of active-duty years served.

Corrective Action Taken When Staff Does Not Properly Secure Doors or Halls:

The Department of Juvenile Justice utilizes a process of progressive discipline when addressing performance issues with employees. As our discipline system’s goal is to develop and retain our staff, corrective responses are intended to be commensurate with the behavior to be corrected. They can vary due to contextual factors of the specific issue being addressed.

Not correctly securing doors or halls can be a significant security breach within a facility. Once identified, the immediate security concern would be corrected, and the supervisor of the responsible staff would verbally address the issue. Formal disciplinary action would be determined based on the specifics of the incident (e.g., was this an isolated incident or repeated behavior, has the behavior been addressed previously, were there additional incidents resulting from the failure to secure doors or halls, etc.). While contextual factors play a significant role in the disciplinary response, particularly egregious or continued occurrences of this type of security failure would result in increased disciplinary responses up to and including termination of employment.

Guidelines on Correctional Officers Physical Contact with Juvenile Inmates:

The Department of Juvenile Justice has specific policies that guide staff regarding the use of physical force to ensure youth safety in their care. Juvenile Correctional Officers (JCO) receive training on de-escalation and approved use of force techniques before working independently with youth and annually after that.

In training and policy, all staff is instructed to use the least restrictive response to address and manage acting-out individuals. Policy and training emphasize that staff use a positive approach to build healthy

relationships with youth, including effective communication techniques and establishing a structured, consistent environment. This underlies the success of our facilities in minimizing physical force situations.

When force is used, staff are instructed to use the most appropriate and reasonable option to ensure the safety and protection of the youth, self, and others while bringing the acting-out behavior under control. While it is impossible to identify and train for all possible circumstances, any force used is expected to be objectively reasonable based on the circumstances' totality.

Oversight of Correctional Officers (i.e. Who Is Responsible for Following Up on Complaints Made Against Staff):

At a facility level, oversight of correctional officers is the facility administrator’s ultimate responsibility. Complaints against staff identified through the review of documentation of facility incidents, a direct report by youth or staff, or received by the facility administrator addresses grievance forms upon discovery. Depending on the complaint’s nature, a referral may be made to the Office of Investigation to initiate an internal investigation into the complaint.

Complaints may also be made to the Office of the Ombudsman. Youth in our facilities can contact the Office of the Ombudsman via the phone as needed. Upon receipt of a complaint, the ombudsman staff document the complaint and notify the facility administrator for a response. Though the Ombudsman Office fielded the complaint and document the resolution, it is the facility administrator’s responsibility to investigate and respond to the complaint. Depending on the complaint’s nature, the Office of Investigation may be contacted to request a formal investigation of the complaint.

Training Opportunities for Correctional Officers:

Juvenile Correctional Officers go through multiple weeks of training upon hire. Correctional officers receive initial on-the-job training immediately after hire and attend a comprehensive six-week Post-certification training within six (6) months of hire. After completing the certification training, officers return to their facility and receive additional on-the-job training specific to their facility. Correctional officers are not allowed to supervise youth independently until all initial training requirements have been completed.

Following the initial training and certification, certified officers must receive 48 hours of additional training annually with a primary emphasis on de-escalation, physical intervention techniques, and fostering positive relations. Additionally, each facility has a designated trainer who can provide targeted refresher training as identified and needed.

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