NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee lawmakers closed a loophole that allowed juvenile detention centers to keep children in solitary confinement for days.
The loophole was first revealed as part of a NewsChannel 5 investigation into Tennessee's "Broken" juvenile justice system.
The House and Senate passed a bill that prohibits juvenile facilities from using seclusion for "punishment" or "administrative convenience."
It also prevents juveniles from being kept in seclusion for more than six hours in a 24-hour period.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, led the charge to change the law.
"A lot had to do with the stories that you'd run," McNally told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"We thought we had this problem under control a few years back when we passed some laws and then, unfortunately, it wasn't or there were some loopholes in it."
Our reports focused on the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Maury County.
Davidson County's Juvenile Court administrator, Kathy Sinback, said things inside the facility needed to change.
"They have solitary confinement policies. They force children to be in their cells for sometimes 23 hours at a time in solitary confinement for no reason," Sinback said in 2019.
One 16-year-old from Nashville said he "started out 24 hours in the cell and did that for seven straight days."
In an interview with Davidson County probation officer Kelly Gray, the teenager said "all he was allowed to do was take a shower every morning."
Gray said, "During his time at Maury County, he went into a deep, dark depression."
She said, after talking with him, she regretted sending him there.
"I walked out of the interview that day and I sat in my car and cried because I played a hand in that, and it shouldn't be happening to our youth."
Lt. Gov. McNally said he and his staff were moved by the reports.
"The message was that we have to do something and that there is a big problem," McNally said.
He said initially the Department of Children's Services pushed back against the bill.
"Maybe not all in, but they came along," McNally said.
DCS claimed in our reports that solitary confinement was already banned but admitted facilities could keep children in "room restriction."
The director of licensing said that, even if a child spent 24 hours in his cell, it would not violate DCS policy and that, in the first week, they could spend 23 hours a day in their cell.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates stated, "To many people that looks like solitary confinement."
Director of Licensing Mark Anderson replied, "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."
Anderson said "room restriction" was not solitary confinement because kids could communicate through the steel doors.
"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 the 2019 interview.
McNally said any loophole that keeps locked in their cells for days at a time must be changed, but initially private operators of juvenile facilities and some sheriff's departments opposed the bill.
They said it hurt their ability to deal with out-of-control juveniles.
"That was a little disappointing," McNally said. "But we understood some of the opposition they had and tried to address it."
They eventually agreed to no more than six hours alone in a cell in any 24-hour period.
It is a dramatic change from what our investigation found.
"I think we've stopped really what amounted to psychological torture," McNally said.
DCS sent the following statement when we asked about the passage of the bill:
"DCS will continue to consider the impact of this legislation and the new, clarifying definition of seclusion. While we already seek to limit how long the practice of seclusion can be used, we will adjust any rules and policies necessary and offer appropriate guidance to our providers and licensed facilities as soon as is practicable. We appreciate the intent of the legislation and always support ideas that promote the safety, permanency and well-being of youth."
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