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Kids still locked in solitary confinement despite law passed last year says watchdog group

Lt. Governor urges DCS to update its policy
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Posted at 12:15 PM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-09 10:45:24-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Kids locked in solitary confinement.

It's not supposed to be happening.

A NewsChannel 5 investigation last year exposed a loophole that allowed juvenile detention facilities in Tennessee to keep kids locked in their cells for 23 hours a day or more.

One of the state's most powerful lawmakers, Republican Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, saw our reports and helped pass a law to close that loophole.

But a report from the taxpayer-funded Disability Rights Tennessee claims the law has not changed what is happening inside juvenile detention facilities.

It found kids at a detention center run by the Department of Children's Services were still locked in cells for 23 hours a day for days or weeks at a time.

"There's a great deal of frustration that it's continuing," Lt. Governor McNally said. "We thought we had taken care of the problem, and it's surprising that it's not."

Disability Rights Tennessee Legal Director Jack Derryberry said DCS is ignoring the law.

"The reality is Children's Services thinks it's OK to lock kids in solitary confinement for 23 or more hours a day," Derryberry said. "The law, however well-intentioned and well purposed it was, is not working."

We interviewed one mom who said her son was in his cell 23 hours a day at the DCS-run Wilder Youth Development Center because the facility did not have enough staff.

"He experienced being locked down 23 hours, sometimes 24 hours, because if there wasn't enough staffing, he wasn't coming out," the mom said.

Deputy Commissioner Darren Goods oversees juvenile justice for the Department of Children's Services.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Are there cases where kids are spending 23 hours a day or more in a cell?"

"We've had some challenges in the TRU (a therapeutic unit), we haven't had any cases of a young person spending 23 hours in seclusion," Goods said.

Goods insisted kids are not in "seclusion" or "solitary confinement" for extended periods, but it comes down to how DCS defines those terms.

Back in 2019, a DCS official told us even if a child spent 23 to 24 hours alone in his cell it would not violate their policy.

He called it room restriction.

"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," said Mark Anderson, who was director of licensing at DCS in 2019.

Anderson said their policy did not consider it solitary confinement because kids could communicate through the steel doors of their cells.

"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," Anderson said in 2019.

After that interview, lawmakers passed a law defining solitary confinement as INCLUDING "confinement to a locked unit or ward where other children may be seen or heard."

It said they could not spend more than six hours a day in solitary.

Despite the new law, DCS did not change its definition of seclusion in its policy.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Darren Goods, "What did DCS change after the law passed?"

"Well, there wasn't a lot for us to change because we are governed by policy 19 - 11 which is more restrictive than the new seclusion law," he said.

Goods said DCS shortened the amount of time juveniles spend in the therapeutic unit from 8 weeks to five days.

But he said DCS did not change the definition of seclusion or how it was interpreted after the law passed.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "If youth can communicate through doors is that considered seclusion?"

Goods responded, "I guess if you look at the definition of the law where you are — where youth are allowed to communicate through walls or through doors then that would be the definition."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "If they could communicate, then that means they are not secluded?"

Goods responded, "Yes, according to the law."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So why did they pass the law?"

Goods responded, "That's a legislative question."

But the lt. governor said there is no question to debate.

"Our understanding of the bill and the law is fairly clear," McNally said.

Lawmakers expected things to change inside juvenile facilities.

McNally wants DCS to update its policy to follow the law they passed.

"I don't think there needs to be any other clarification other than the Department needs to update its rules," McNally said.