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Broken: New call to end solitary confinement for juveniles

Posted: 1:22 PM, Feb 13, 2020
Updated: 2022-04-04 16:22:15-04
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Kentucky-based juvenile justice advocate is calling on Tennessee officials to end the practice of solitary confinement in the state's juvenile detention centers.

Vicki Reed with the Kentucky Juvenile Justice Initiative was shocked to learn children in Tennessee can be kept alone in their cells for up to 24 hours a day, for days at time.

Reed reacted to our investigation which discovered children at the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Maury County are routinely kept on what the Department of Children's Services calls "room restriction."

It allows juveniles to be locked in single occupancy cells for up to 24 hours a day for several days at a time, leaving only to take a shower.

DCS, which licenses juvenile detention centers across the state, insists Tennessee strictly prohibits solitary confinement for juveniles.

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A juvenile locked up in solitary confinement

A DCS spokesperson said the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center is not violating current department rules and is in compliance with state law based on Tennessee's current definition of solitary confinement.

But Reed, who helped set up Kentucky's juvenile detention policy before she retired from the state's Department of Juvenile Justice, said Tennessee is out of step with Kentucky and most other states across the country.

"To me, there is still no excuse that the kids are going to be in their room all the time," Reed said.

She said juveniles in Kentucky spend most of their day outside their cells.

According to Kentucky's juvenile detention policy, detention centers are required to "provide recreation and structured leisure time activities."

"Room restriction" is reserved for misbehavior and "shall not exceed more than 24 hours."

Even then, juveniles must be checked every 15 minutes.

Late last year, Davidson County's juvenile court administrator, Kathy Sinback, bluntly said what is happening at the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center is indeed solitary confinement.

"They have solitary confinement policies. They force their children to be in their cells for sometimes 23 hours at a time in solitary confinement for no reason," Sinback said.

The privately owned facility is the first place delinquent Davidson County juveniles, as young as 12 years old, go after a judge orders them into state custody.

They can stay there days, weeks or sometimes months while the state finds a more permanent placement.

"All they are doing is warehousing kids until they go to the next placement they can find, and DCS often seems like they don't know where that is going to be," Sinback said.

The director of licensing for DCS, Mark Anderson, said in an interview in November that, even if a juvenile spent 24 hours a day in his cell at the facility, it would not violate DCS rules.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "How is it not solitary confinement? How is it not seclusion to be kept inside one of those cells - a single occupancy cell - for 23 hours?"

Anderson responded, "It's not a situation I would want to be in. But it's not a violation of our current rules."

Related stories:

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DCS pointed to its policy which was adopted into state law in 2018 which states "seclusion does not include confinement to a locked unit or ward where other children are present."

Anderson said, "The youth are yelling at each other back and forth between the cells. Youth from over here are yelling at youth from over there. There's kids out in the day room. They're talking through the doors to these folks, so it's not as if they are isolated down in a hole somewhere."

He said during the first week at Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention, juveniles are kept on what's called "room restriction" for 23 hours a day and get only one hour of recreation - which can be taken away.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates stated, "To many people that looks like solitary confinement."

Anderson responded, "The difference between room restriction and solitary confinement is when you are in solitary confinement the expectation is that you are completely isolated from everyone else."

Reed was disturbed that the ability to yell through a metal door meant a child was not in isolation.

"I say that sounds ridiculous. I'm sorry. To me, that's isolation," Reed said.

Reed is not just an advocate for juvenile justice reform, she is a violent crime survivor.

She was shot by a teenager years ago.

"An 18-year-old robbed and tried to abduct me, and he shot me with a double barrel shotgun at point-blank range," Reed said.

She lost three fingers in the attack, but she gained a passion fighting the root causes of crime.

"If you treat these kids the way I think Tennessee is treating them now, what you are going to have is more violent kids. You are going to have more victims like me who have been victims of that violence," Reed said.

Jackson Harris knows how damaging it can be to be held in solitary confinement.

He was in solitary confinement seven years ago in Williamson County when he was 13 years old.

"You're in a cell for 23 hours and that includes the nighttime and the daytime and you get one hour of rec.," Harris said.

He continued, "It's kind of like psychological torture in my opinion of how it was there. I went crazy slowly, after a while I just lost my sense of being social," Harris said.

He remembers trying to kill himself.

"I sat there and tried to wrap a sheet around my neck, and they came out and took the sheet from me. It put me in this state where I didn't really care and I just wanted to get out," Harris said.

Harris and his mom were surprised to learn what DCS and the state allow at Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention.

They believe the state needs to be more strict about how it defines solitary confinement.

"I think it has damaged him for life," said Jackson's mom Elizabeth Harris. "I mean, there is no getting over that."

Vicki Reed said angry, damaged kids are more likely to commit new crimes.

She said Tennessee is out of step with other states across the country.

"I think they are out of sync with what current practice is," Reed said.

State Rep. Jesse Chism, D-Memphis, has proposed a bill that would ban juvenile solitary confinement.

The Department of Children's Services would not say whether it supports the bill.

A department spokesperson said "we have met with Rep. Chism several times and have had good conversations about the intent of his legislation."

The department has said past attempts to narrowly define solitary confinement would have made some juvenile detention facilities immediately out of compliance and obsolete.

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