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Senate passes bill to prevent solitary confinement in juvenile facilities

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Posted at 12:18 PM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-30 22:04:36-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Tennessee state Senate unanimously passed a bill designed to close a "loophole" in state law first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Our investigation found children were routinely locked in solitary confinement inside the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Maury County.

The Department of Children's Services claimed the practice did not violate its policy because the kids could communicate by yelling through locked doors.

On Monday, the Senate passed SB383 sponsored by Sen. Ed Jackson, a Republican from Jackson, by the vote of 31-0.

It now moves to the House of Representatives where some sheriff departments and private operators of juvenile detention centers may try to kill the bill.

It faced little opposition in the Senate.

The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week after Sen. Jackson said it would fix a "loophole" that allowed youth to be locked alone in cells for long periods of time.

"What this bill does is define 'seclusion' as it relates to juvenile detention centers," Jackson said.

It is a direct reaction to what we found at the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center as part of a series of reports on Tennessee's Broken juvenile justice system.

Previous stories:

Broken: Juvenile detention center locks children in solitary confinement

Broken: New call to end solitary confinement for juveniles

Davidson County's Juvenile Court administrator, Kathy Sinback, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates what is happening at the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center is solitary confinement.

"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 our interview in 2019.

One 16-year-old boy from Nashville said he "started out 24 hours in the cell and did that for 7 straight days. All he was allowed to do was a shower every morning."

Juvenile probation officer Kelly Gray was so disturbed by what happened to the teenager she took notes about his time there.

"During his time at Maury County he went into a deep dark depression," Gray said.

Gray 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," Gray said.

The Department of Children's Services told us it has policies against solitary confinement, but facilities can keep youth on "room restriction."

DCS Director of Licensing Mark Anderson explained that, even if a youth spent 24 hours in his cell, it would not violate DCS policy that, in the first week, children can spend 23 hours a day in their cells.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates said to Anderson, "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."

Anderson said, if kids are kept alone in single cells, it is not isolation or solitary confinement because they can 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 our 2019 interview.

The proposed new law from Sen. Jackson would define seclusion in a way that would end long periods of room restriction.

He told lawmakers, "It was not considered seclusion under current law because they could hear and see others."

Seclusion would now be temporary - not more than two hours.

Vicki Reed with the Kentucky Juvenile Justice Initiative said the bill is long overdue.

"I'm very encouraged to see Tennessee taking this step and joining the rest of the states and the nation," Reed said.

"There's no excuse that you are going to put a kid in a cell and lock the door and leave him there 22, 23 hours a day."

A House subcommittee will hear the bill on Wednesday.

Some private operators of juvenile detention facilities and some county sheriff departments that operate juvenile facilities have voiced opposition to the bill.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates will continue to follow its progress.