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Broken: State senator calls for ban on solitary confinement of juveniles

Posted: 10:57 AM, Nov 27, 2019
Updated: 2022-04-04 16:24:15-04
Jeff Yarbro.jpg

NASHVILLE, Tenn (WTVF) — A Tennessee state senator said he was "heartbroken" after seeing a NewsChannel 5 investigation and, now, he said it's time to pass a law banning solitary confinement for juveniles.

Our exclusive investigation revealed that a Middle Tennessee juvenile detention center locks children in single occupancy cells for 23 hours a day or more, for days at a time, on what's called "room restriction."

The state Department of Children's Services (DCS) says it strictly prohibits solitary confinement, but said the practice we uncovered does not violate current state law or DCS policies.

"We have to start taking this issue seriously," said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro. (D-Nashville)

Yarbro said he tried to pass a bill banning solitary confinement for juveniles in 2016, but it failed "after a litany of excuses and evasions."

"It was defeated under the theory that it wasn't needed," Yarbro added.

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His bill would have prevented children from being locked alone in a cell for more than 22 hours a day - a common definition for solitary confinement.

"I think that what people couldn't take was they didn't want that clear standard, because it would require every, or most of these facilities, to change practice," Yarbro said.

Our NewsChannel 5 investigation focused on the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Maury County.

Solitary Confinement.jpg
An unknown child peers from a cell at the Middle Tennessee Detention Center in Columbia

It is often the first place that DCS sends juvenile delinquent youth from Davidson County after a judge orders them into state custody.

"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,' said Kathy Sinback, who is the Davidson County Juvenile Court Administrator.

Court officials shared the story of a 16-year-old who told them he "started out 24 hours in the cell and did that for seven straight days. All he was allowed to do was take a shower every morning."

"During the first seven days of his stay at Maury County, he was on 24 hour a day lockdown," said Davidson County Juvenile Probation Officer Kelly Gray.

The director of licensing for DCS, Mark Anderson, said children can be kept in "room restriction" but that is different from solitary confinement.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "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."

He said youth in their cells can communicate with youth in other parts of the pod.

"The youth are yelling at each other back and forth between the cells," Anderson said. "So it's not as if they are isolated down in a hole somewhere."

DCS said its policy prohibiting seclusion was adopted into state law in 2018.

The definition states, "Seclusion does not include confinement to a locked unit or ward where other children are present."

Yarbro said Tennessee is behind other states, and it's time for a more specific definition of solitary confinement.

"They said a lot of words in their regulations that make it sound like we have prevented solitary confinement, we have prevent seclusion," Yarbro said.

"Hearing that argument that someone can yell through a wall and that means that they are not in solitary confinement or seclusion strikes me as ridiculous."

Experts say solitary confinement is especially dangerous for juveniles whose brains are still developing.

Yarbro said he will support a bill next legislative session that seeks to ban solitary confinement for juveniles and he hopes it will have a more strict definition of what solitary confinement is.

Read more: Broken: Controversial juvenile facility has powerful owners