By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
For decades, residents of Pikeville, Tenn., have climbed the
winding road up the Cumberland Plateau to the Taft Youth Development
Some found work. Others volunteered as a tutor, a mentor
or a coach. Still others seized the chance to take a troubled boy to
church on a Sunday.
The town is so small that the hills of the
Sequatchie Valley appear to dead-end the downtown's neat streets in
every direction. Being home of the state's oldest reform school has been
a point of pride for the city and its 1,700 people.
up for good this month, shutting its gates after 100 years. Area leaders
fought to keep the institution, which employed 170 people just one year
ago, arguing that its loss would deal a blow to a struggling community.
had a lot of people here who have dedicated their lives to serving
them," County Mayor Bobby Collier said. "I feel like we were stabbed in
The closure shows how the push to cut Tennessee state
government in a slow economy can have a larger-than-expected impact on
small places such as Bledsoe County, with its population of fewer than
13,000 and an unemployment rate near 10 percent. But the impact ripples
far beyond Pikeville.
Taft's closure has set off a domino chain within the Department of Children's Services, one in which the Nashville neighborhoods of Donelson and Bordeaux are affected.
Forty-three boys at Taft are being parceled out to three other youth detention centers,
one of them Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Bordeaux. To
make way for them, DCS officials repurposed New Visions Youth
Development Center, which opened just seven years ago as a model
facility for girls, and transferred its residents to Clover Bottom, a former mental institution in Donelson.
"I'm concerned that our girls are being pushed around," said state Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville.
reorganization of the juvenile justice system began as a way to save
money - about $8 million annually, DCS estimates, from a youth
development system budget of $50 million.
The system also has far
more beds than it needs, as the number of teens committed to the youth
detention system has slid from 883 admissions during the 2006 fiscal
year to an estimated 705 this year.
DCS Commissioner Kathryn O'Day
says the reorganization also will result in better care for the violent
teens who wind up in the youth detention system. Girls, O'Day predicts,
will benefit from being moved from a prison setting to a lower-security
environment focused on mental health.
But less than a month after the first girls arrived at Clover Bottom from New Visions, three have escaped.
The closure of Taft will prompt even more scrutiny of the DCS system, already running high after allegations of sexual abuse at Woodland Hills two years ago.
officials promise benefits from closing Taft that include closer
coordination between offenders and their families, more programs for the
boys and girls inside the system, and lower costs.
trying to do is get as many kids as close to home as possible and then
also to have the best possible resources available because this is a
very expensive intervention that we do," O'Day said. "I've talked to
people who just can't believe you can do better with less money. ... But
If not for the speeches that referenced rap sheets and
anger-management classes, last month's final graduation ceremony at Taft
might have seemed like any other at a small, rural high school.
boys shuffled nervously to the front row of a cinder block assembly
room, white sneakers gleaming beneath their black robes and silver "12s"
dangling from their tassels and mortarboards. Proud mothers beamed
behind them, and a stern principal teared up as she shared personal
anecdotes about each and urged them to better themselves.
receiving his diploma ... I'm very proud," said Kennetha Mason, a
Nashville woman whose son graduated last month. "He's changed a lot."
boys, whom state authorities asked not to be named because they are
still juveniles, were among the last to complete Taft's GED program.
Soon after the ceremony, they were to head back into society, having
completed sentences for violent crimes.
Taft opened in 1912.
Located at the southern edge of the Virgin Falls State Wildlife Area,
the facility used to feature a working farm, but that operation was
handed off to Tricor, a job-training program for the nearby adult
Kids are required to take a full day of classes, plus work to maintain the grounds.
noted that 86 percent of the boys who were released from Taft during
the 2010-11 budget year stayed out of the juvenile justice system for at
least the next 12 months. The facility's rate of repeat offenders was
lower than that of any of the other three facilities serving boys -
Woodland Hills, John S. Wilder Youth Development Center near Memphis and
Mountain View Youth Development Center near Knoxville.
served as a model facility in other respects. Coached by local
volunteers, its football team received accolades nationwide, playing
road games against area high schools and holding practices inside Taft's
barbed-wire confines. Drama and art teachers regularly made long drives
over winding country roads to help students there.
"A lot of
those boys, they get a second chance," said Winky Cagle, a beefy,
sunburned man who, besides owning Little Maggie's Diner, also serves on
the city council and recently retired as the county tax assessor. "We
were giving a lot of young men an opportunity that they probably never
Proponents also said Taft's biggest strength was its
end-of-the-road location, which reminded inmates that they were down to
their last chances. And escapees had little hope of making it back to
their homes in the city.
"At one time, there wasn't even a fence
around this place," Collier said. "If they do get out, where are they
going to go? Most of them are from an urban setting, and we're out here
in the country."
Taft, however, had its detractors. The center often took on the
toughest offenders, including those whose behavior had forced
authorities to move them from other facilities.
"I'm so happy he's
coming home," said Melody Clark, a Franklin County mother whose son
graduated in last month's ceremony. "I've heard so many negative reports
Incidents within the youth development system are not
uncommon. In 2010, The Tennessean reported allegations that female staff
at Woodland Hills had sexually abused male students. One woman was
convicted of sexual assault, and another was fired.
responded by tightening rules governing interactions between staff and
boys, and they increased the number of security cameras throughout the
facility. The department says it also trained staff and students in how
to recognize and report sexual abuse.
"We wouldn't have a single
student there if we didn't believe it was a safe environment for youth,"
DCS spokesman Brandon Gee said in a statement.
The decision to
close Taft was made in part because of its age. The gymnasium, cafeteria
and dormitory date from the 1950s or earlier, and its layout -
buildings scattered around a campus rather than clustered - made it
harder to watch over the grounds, DCS officials said.
To make way
for the boys from Taft, 13 girls who were at New Visions have been moved
to Clover Bottom, a former mental institution in Donelson that the
state closed last year in a cost-cutting move. Their care has been
contracted to G4S Youth Services, a private firm.
The New Visions building, next door to Woodland Hills, will become an "honors dorm" for boys near the end of their sentences.
plan raises security questions, however. Residents of nearby
neighborhoods are concerned that boys placed in the New Visions building
will be more likely to escape.
"The state hasn't come to talk to
any of the neighborhood groups, and I think that's a little bit
concerning," said Chris Utley, president of the Northwest Civic
Association. "When they break out, they don't notify the police, and
they don't notify the neighborhood."
The plan moves the youth development system's girls to a less secure facility as well.
G4S has leased two cottages on the grounds of Clover Bottom from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Some security features, such as electronically delayed locks, have been
added, but the move's purpose is to place the girls in a setting less
like a jail.
O'Day says this environment will be better for the girls.
lot of those girls have been victims," O'Day said. "(New Visions) is an
incarceration facility, and it looks like an incarceration facility.
And when you have a youth that has been traumatized, that kind of a
setting reinforces that trauma."
Early July 4, three girls slipped
out of Clover Bottom by overpowering a security officer and stealing
her car. They abandoned the car near downtown Nashville and were caught
miles away in Madison.
Two other security officers were fired for
failing to follow proper protocols that could have stopped the girls
from escaping, said Susan Mitchell, executive director of network
development for DCS.
The contractor G4S also implemented another round of training for staff.
think it was just one of those things we could improve upon, that the
provider could improve upon," Mitchell said. "They (the girls) are not
violent for the most part. They've just got off track with their lives."
officials insist the reorganization plan will help girls and boys in
the juvenile justice system get their lives back on track.
advantage, DCS officials say, is that everyone in the youth development
system will be close to major cities. That will make it easier for
officials to coordinate rehabilitation programs with parents, social
workers and court-appointed counselors, O'Day said.
The plan also means closing what had been the most expensive of the state's four development centers for boys.
cost more than $350 a day for each of the 96 boys who were held there
last year. Wilder, Woodland Hills and Mountain View cost $280 to $290 a
day for populations ranging from 108 to 120 boys.
The numbers meant DCS officials had to consider closing one facility, O'Day said.
"You can't really walk away from an opportunity (to save money) like that without giving it a good hard look," she said.
Taft also was selected to close because plans were already in the
works to expand a nearby adult prison in Bledsoe County. State officials
believe the expansion would soften the blow to the local economy, with
Taft employees being given a chance to take jobs at the prison.
DCS officials say 90 workers at Taft have taken other jobs in state government, while 13 have resigned or retired.
Fifty-four other Taft employees have not been moved into other state jobs, including 25 who chose not to ask DCS for assistance.
any scenario, you're not going to have everything line up perfectly
with what you're trying to do," O'Day said. "There's a tradeoff."
in Pikeville, residents say the closure of Taft nonetheless feels like a
loss. The prison expansion was supposed to create jobs in the
community. At best, Pikeville's economy will jog in place.
just can't afford to lose jobs," Cagle said. "We've spent the last six
or eight months trying to save 100 and some odd jobs at Taft Youth
Center when we should have been working on new employment."