COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) ?? One teen has learned to weld, participates in ROTC, passed a test to receive her GED, and she??s doing it all behind the fence at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
Megan Bensinger made a series of poor decisions which landed her in the correctional facility, and now she is making some good ones.
Like all of the teens at DJJ, Bensinger has been given the chance to use her time behind the 14 foot fence to prepare for what comes next, and it is chance she is taking.
??A lot of juveniles think that they??re just in jail, and they don??t try to get the positive out of it,?? said Bensinger.
In the last 10 years, the facility has undergone some changes, with new buildings, dorms, trade training courses, and community giveback programs.
According to DJJ director Margaret Barber, they have been working to improve the feel of the facility; now referring to the Broad River Road location as a ??Community behind the Fence.??
"Now when every child comes here, behind the fence we begin to get their attention. We begin to stabilize them, we begin to work with them to let them know that we care, that we have a plan for them, that there's a community that cares back here,?? said Barber.
Some criticize DJJ saying the facility is too comfortable and easy for juveniles.
Barber, however, disagrees. The director has more than 40 years of experience with troubled teens, and began her career as a probation officer.
"There??s no way it doesn??t work. I can tell them every time how it works. The other way does not work, lock them up, throw away the key does not work. It causes the child to become bitter, angry, and he comes out a better prisoner a better criminal,?? said Barber.
Barber referred to the other way as "warehousing."
DJJ officials acknowledge that all teens and their circumstances are different and won't respons to opportunities the same.
Barber says that they try to make teens staying at DJJ strong enough to face the world they may eventually return to.
"We can not always change home, we do our best to try to impact change at home," said Barber.
Although the teens are given opportunities to excel, they are still forced to follow a strict schedule with rules, which serves as a constant reminder of their incarceration.
"A lot of people just take freedom for granted; they don??t know how quick you can lose your freedom,?? said Bensinger.
In losing her freedom, the teen has gained a mentor.
"I tell my students that when they walk through these doors in here they??re not juveniles, they??re not in a prison system. They??re mine. They belong to me Eddie Jackson, I feel a personal responsibility to each and every one of them,?? said Jackson.
Eddie Jackson drives 80 miles one way to teach welding within the fence, he believes in order to make an impact he has to create a trusting connection with his students.
"You have to convince them they??re going to have to do something besides just be here, and so once you??ve sold a child on self worth, that they??re really worth something, that this is just temporary; when they get out of here they say I am really somebody,?? said Jackson.
Bensinger has roughly 6 months left at DJJ and now stays in a transition house on campus with other young women. The house has no bars like jail, but strict 24 hour supervision and daily chores.
Bensinger said that she plans to run her own company using the welding skills she learned behind the fence.
For more information about the Department of Juvenile Justice click here.