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New juvenile detention rules will lead to 'more solitary confinement,' say critics

Posted at 2:03 PM, Jul 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-25 21:40:53-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Newly proposed rules covering juvenile detention centers in Tennessee are supposed to ban solitary confinement.

But critics say they were written with the exclusive help of juvenile detention operators and would allow facilities to continue locking children in solitary confinement.

A NewsChannel 5 investigation in 2019 exposed a loophole that allowed juvenile detention centers to keep children alone in their cells for days at a time on something called "room restriction."

Lawmakers were outraged by what we uncovered and passed a law last year closing the loophole.

The law provided a new definition for solitary confinement and required the Department of Children's Services, which oversees juvenile detention centers, to rewrite its rules.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said last year that juvenile detention operators expressed concern about the law banning solitary confinement, but lawmakers passed the bill anyway.

"The message was we have to do something," McNally said.

Some operators cited low staffing levels and dangerous kids as reasons for keeping juveniles in their cells for extended periods.

Zoe Jamail, with Disability Rights Tennessee, reviewed the proposed new rules and said they do not do what lawmakers intended.

"In my opinion what the rules do is they open it up to more solitary confinement," Jamail said.

At a DCS rulemaking hearing earlier this month, representatives with the taxpayer-funded Disability Rights Tennessee and a national nonprofit law firm the Youth Law Center, questioned who attended meetings when the newly proposed rules were written.

"I think it is troubling that the creation of these rules was preceded by at least two meetings with providers who are subject to these rules," said attorney Jack Derryberry with Disability Rights Tennessee.

DCS said the draft rules were written in "licensing standards committee meetings" attended by juvenile detention operators.

DCS said advocates never asked to attend the meetings.

"There was no notice, and we weren't involved nor were other advocacy agencies such as the Youth Law Center," said Derryberry.

The new rules adopt the definition of seclusion passed by lawmakers, but then list seven exemptions — including for "medical reasons," "suicidal behavior" and "protection from harm by other youth."

Disability Rights Tennessee said there are only three exemptions in the state law.

Zoe Jamail said the seven exemptions in the proposed rules are poorly defined and could lead to more solitary confinement.

"If the intent is to end long-term seclusion, these rules will not do that. They fall short of putting in the safeguards that are in the law," Jamail said.

"They have created by this rule a loophole, which is larger than the original loophole," attorney Jack Derryberry said.

Now that advocates know about the rulemaking process, they plan to push for changes in the current proposal and attend all future meetings.

It will take several more months to finalize the rules.