Plenty of Blame for Turmoil at a Tennessee Lockup

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Jonh LashRunning a prison is difficult under any circumstances. With conflicting demands to provide both security and rehabilitative services, and often understaffed and poorly funded, it’s not surprising that most prisons struggle to rise above the level of hellhole.

It’s enough to make me wonder if it’s an inherently impossible task.

The recent turmoil at Tennessee’s Woodland Hills juvenile facility in Nashville provides an example of an institution unable to meet the demands placed on it. To be clear, the facility is not technically a prison. It is a Youth Development Center and is designed to “provide treatment programs for delinquent youth ages 13 to 19.” It’s still a prison though, as evidenced by recent events.

On Monday 32 juveniles (nearly half the population) got out of their rooms, made their way to a common area and overwhelmed staff there. They then went outside where they slipped under the fence of the facility, escaping into the surrounding neighborhoods. Most were captured overnight and in the next few days.

On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning the youth, including many of those who had escaped, rioted at the facility, Again the teens were able to get out of their rooms by kicking out paneling under windows (as they had during the escape). They ran around the outside areas “brandishing pipes, wooden planks and fire extinguishers” well into the morning.

One witness was Jim Henry, commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Children’s Services, the agency that oversees the youth facilities.

“I was amazed at the frenzy,” he said. “I know we’ve got some tough kids in custody but it is still strange seeing it firsthand.”

The riot was finally contained around 5:00 a.m, by the state’s Department of Corrections strike force following a request from Henry to use force against the youth. The regular staff are only permitted to use restraints, but the riot squad had armor, shields, tasers, batons and other non-lethal weapons on hand and the governor’s permission to use necessary force.

Democratic politicians have been quick to lay blame at the feet of Republican governor Bill Haslam. State Rep. Rep. Craig Fitzhugh claims the governor has instituted a budget cut of 40 percent to the Department of Children’s Services. Under the previous Democratic governor the agency had a budget of $66 million, but is now down to less than $40 million.

The governor’s people dispute the numbers of course, but even their figures come in well below the previous administrations’. They blame the recession, not without reason. Other critics go beyond the money though. They cite the governor’s closing of Taft YDC in 2012. The facility was home to older and more violent teens, who were then sent to the state’s remaining three YDCs. Also noted is the disbanding of a select committee that oversaw the activities of the DCS.

Whatever the factors at play, it is clear that Woodland Hills has been in trouble for a long time, and it is not clear what fix might be best. In 2010 a youth died of a seizure while in custody amid allegations of neglect. The same year an investigative report in The Tennessean uncovered blatant and unchecked sexual abuse of residents, mostly by female staff. And in a three-month period during 2012 the facility saw a huge spike of violence with over 100 assaults.

Woodland HIlls is not outstandingly bad, in fact it probably isn’t far from the norm of a lot of youth prisons around the country. It’s just an example that has made its way into the news a few times, and in a few weeks it will fade into obscurity again.

For now though, while we are still paying attention, let’s consider the proposition that the entire effort of creating prisons for youth is a failure. The problems aren’t arising from poor management, decreased funding, the recession or politics. Instead, the problems themselves are symptomatic of prisons, and the only way to get rid of them is to ditch the whole concept. It’s time for a new paradigm.