TN Reform school's closure will be felt for hundreds of miles

8:43 AM, Jul 15, 2012   |    comments
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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 Center.

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.

Taft closes 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.

"We've 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 heart."

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.

The 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.

DCS 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.

"What you're 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 you can."

Final chance

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.

Three 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.

"Him receiving his diploma ... I'm very proud," said Kennetha Mason, a Nashville woman whose son graduated last month. "He's changed a lot."

The 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 prison.

Kids are required to take a full day of classes, plus work to maintain the grounds.

Proponents 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.

Taft 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 had."

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."

Tough environment

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 on it."

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.

DCS officials 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.

That 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.

"A 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.

"I 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."

DCS officials insist the reorganization plan will help girls and boys in the juvenile justice system get their lives back on track.

One 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.

Taft 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.

Transition plan

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.

"In 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."

But 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.

"We 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."

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