© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tenn. Detention Facility Explores How To Control Rough Teens


Earlier this month, 32 inmates broke out of the most high-security juvenile detention facility in Tennessee. Just days after that, a riot broke out, and then last week another prison break with a dozen juveniles escaping. As Bobby Allyn of member station WPLN reports, officials are exploring ways to bring the facility under control.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Inside the Woodland Hills Juvenile Detention Facility in Nashville feels like an eerily-quiet high school, except that there are cages on every window, guards manning nearly every hallway and the students sleep alone in 8 by 10 cells.

MELVIN WHITLOW: It's that carrot and stick, you know. It's what motivates you to do better.

ALLYN: That's Melvin Whitlow, the superintendent of Woodland Hills, expressing the facility's current philosophy as we walk down a long, dimly lit hallway.

WHITLOW: That young man is in there for what we call a timeout. He had some issues in the classroom, and he's placed there to calm down.

ALLYN: He's describing an inmate who has his face and hands pressed against the small window in a solitary confinement room meant for punishment. It doesn't look fun.

WHITLOW: It definitely isn't - but because it makes you think. It definitely makes you think.

ALLYN: After the first breakout this month, officials hired 10 more security guards, strengthened the fence around the site and reinforced weak spots in the dorms. Nonetheless, as a guard was making his rounds Friday night, several teens rushed him at once.

ROB JOHNSON: They jumped him. They assaulted him. They took his radio. They took the keys that he had on them.

ALLYN: Then 13 of them took off toward a small gap at the entrance gate, says Tennessee Department of Children's Services spokesman Rob Johnson.

JOHNSON: And one of the smaller kids was able to wiggle through and then get into the guard house and open the gate for the rest of them.

ALLYN: Authorities eventually caught all 13 and plan to press additional charges against them. Two of the teens from the previous breakout are still at large. Friday's incident was the latest violent disturbance at the Woodland Hills Center, which records show has a history of clashes between teens and security guards. It's something author Nell Bernstein has seen across the country. She recently published the book "Burning Down The House: An In Depth Look At Youth Incarceration."

NELL BERNSTEIN: If there's no relationship except a punitive and controlling one, there's no room to make any progress with the kid.

ALLYN: Bernstein, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other advocates point to Missouri as an exemplary model. There, the hardest youth are placed in very small residential centers that feel more like summer camp than jail. Instead of lonely cells, they sleep in shared dorms. Officials respond to unruly behavior with group therapy instead of solitary confinement, and the results have been impressive. According to Missouri officials, violence is lower, and the kids rarely end up back in the system once they're out. Jason Zidenberg of the Justice Policy Institute says places like New York, Washington, D.C., and California have all adopted aspects of the Missouri model for dealing with troubled teens.

JASON ZIDENBERG: As the cost of confinement rose, it became pretty hard to justify why we would be needlessly sticking kids in these places when it's this expensive and we're getting these outcomes.

ALLYN: Tennessee officials say they are considering it, too. But they say it's impossible to dramatically reform the system overnight. So the immediate response is to shore up security. Woodland Hills's officials are working on replacing the doorknobs in each cell because right now the doors can't be locked. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.