published Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Taft Youth Center's last three students moved to other facilities

Taft Youth Center
Taft Youth Center
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SHIPPED OUT

The following chart shows how the 83 students housed at Taft Youth Development Center were released or relocated.

0: New Visions Youth Development Center (Nashville, 143 miles from Chattanooga)

13: Mountain View Youth Development Center (Dandridge, 143 miles from Chattanooga)

14: Woodland Hills Youth Development Center (Nashville, 144 miles from Chattanooga)

16: John S. Wilder Youth Development Center (Somerville, 276 miles from Chattanooga)

1: Transferred to a private provider

10: Sentences expired

19: Trial home visit (indeterminate sentence allows return home)

1: Turned 19 while in custody

7: Discharged

2: Awaiting trial in county or nearby facility where trial is to be held

Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services

The last three inmates at Taft Youth Development Center left the 95-year-old facility under a cloudy dawn sky Wednesday, signifying the end of an era.

For nearly 10 decades, Taft has been the state's primary facility for its most troubled youth, but over the years, officials say, it also became the most expensive to operate. Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day proposed the closure of the Pikeville center last November after Gov. Bill Haslam called for across-the-board departmental budget cuts.

O'Day contends the closure will save the state $8.5 million a year. DCS has a $51 million annual budget.

But Sequatchie County Juvenile Court Judge Tommy Austin maintains the whole notion of closing Taft is a bad idea.

"I think that was a very foolish mistake on the powers that be when they chose to do that," Austin said Wednesday.

Taft's staff was specially trained to work with the boys there and had years of experience behind them and a successful record, he said.

DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said Wednesday that most students housed at Taft have been placed at the state's other centers scattered across the state or otherwise relocated under various circumstances.

Sudderth said 43 of the students where sent to one of the three remaining centers, while most of the 40 others were released under court orders, served their sentences, sent to facilities in or near the county where they are to stand trial, or turned 19 becoming too old for DCS custody.

Austin said he suspects the costs of transporting boys now being sent to youth facilities in Nashville will increase when they must be hauled farther for court hearings in their home counties and the like, he said.

"I just think it'll show up being a mistake down the road," he said. "Time will tell, I guess."

Taft now becomes part of the state Department of Correction and the state's prison system will incorporate the center into its facilities, two of which are neighbors to Taft -- the Southeast Tennessee State Regional Correctional Facility and the new Bledsoe County Corrections Complex set to start taking on inmates next year, officials said.

The Department of Correction will take over operations of Taft Friday, spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said Wednesday.

"We are in the early stages of examining our options and needs for future use of the facility," Carter stated in an email. "No decision has been made at this point."

Taft comes with equipment associated with its school and vocational programs and a water treatment plant that serves the adult prison facilities and nearby Fall Creek Falls State Park.

"We will continue to operate the water treatment plant," Carter said. "We will assess any remaining equipment and determine its possible short-term or long-term use."

Since November, the proposed closure has drawn bipartisan fire in the General Assembly from lawmakers in Taft-area counties and from many juvenile judges in the region. But the budget that zeroed out appropriations for Taft passed the Legislature and was signed by Haslam in May.

Moves to shutter the center began in earnest after that, with July 1 initially listed as the official shutdown. But in June, DCS officials shifted the date to July 13.

While DCS officials denied there were any delays in moving Taft students, several officials raised questions about how prepared the state was to place the older Taft inmates in other centers and how much it would cost to house them.

The youth development center now nearest to Chattanooga is Woodland Hills in Nashville, about 145 miles away. The all-female New Visions center -- once one of the centers DCS eyed for conversion to house many of Taft's male inmates -- is being combined with Woodland Hills, both of which are on the same campus, according to DCS.

The girls at New Visions are now being served by G4S Youth Services, which will house them at the state's Clover Bottom Development Center campus in Nashville, Sudderth said. All costs associated with Clover Bottom are born by the provider, she said, and the New Visions facility will be utilized as an "honors program" for Woodland Hills students who perform well.

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about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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