Cook: The crime of closing Taft

Cook: The crime of closing Taft

February 2nd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Raise my damn taxes.

Or pass the hat. If one-third of the people in Tennessee sent in one dollar each, we could do it. Cut the death penalty out of the state budget. It costs millions to fund.

Do something. Just keep Taft Youth Center open.

Taft Youth Center is -- literally -- the most effective youth development center in the state of Tennessee. And Gov. Bill Haslam just announced he wants to close its doors.

We, perhaps more than any city in Tennessee these days, are beginning to understand the ripple effect of violence: No community is immune.

And Taft transforms the lives of kids from Chattanooga. More than one-third of the 80 students at Taft come from our area. Effective teen rehabilitation is central to our city's work to reduce violence.

It's as if there was a huge smallpox outbreak in our area, and the underfunded, underdog hospital doing so much to heal and help our people is now being shut down.

For decades, folks at Taft have been laboring away (think they earn gobs of cash?) to make that place into something that actually works.

Taft receives the toughest of the tough: juvenile offenders with the most hardened hearts and tragic rap sheets. They're teetering on the edge of the precipice, and Taft works to save their lives.

Taft has the lowest recidivism rate in the state. Three percent, compared with 11 percent for every other Tennessee Department of Children's Services youth center.

I learned that from Bledsoe County Judge Howard Upchurch, who organized 20 other Juvenile Court judges in Tennessee to oppose the closing of Taft.

Taft has the highest number of students getting their GED or high school diplomas. Its graduation rate may top some state high schools. You don't do that without blood, sweat and tears. I know how hard it is to teach my own kids to tie their shoes. Now try to teach American literature and algebra to an inch-away-from-becoming-a-lifetime-criminal-at-16 kid who's seen nothing but closed doors in life.

Close it down? We ought to charge admission.

After all, the governor's good at keeping prisons open. Just not Taft.

Ten months ago, Haslam allocated $31 million to keep the doors open at Hardeman County Correctional Facility in Whiteman. It was on its last leg; former Gov. Phil Bredesen had planned on closing it.

Yet at the last minute, Haslam scrambled together $31 million to fund permanently the 1,967-bed prison.

I wonder why.

Hardeman County is managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, a publicly traded Nashville-based business that operates prisons across the United States. The first three quarters of 2011, the company recorded profits in excess of $1.2 billion.

So while our taxes can't be used to keep Taft open, they are being used to keep CCA a billion-dollar-a-year company.

While Haslam was campaigning for governor, CCA President and CEO Damon Hininger donated $2,000 to his campaign, while CCA itself made the maximum donation: $7,500.

At the time, Haslam defended his decision to keep Hardeman open. Budget cuts, he said, aren't the most important thing.

"We could have saved some money by closing that, but in the end we didn't think it was the right thing to do for the corrections system," he told an Associated Press reporter at the time.

Why does he say that about Hardeman but not Taft? Is Haslam shutting down Taft in an attempt to privatize our state's juvenile correction facilities?

There's still a chance. The budget must go through the Legislature (come on, Bo Watson; we're counting on you) where the closure may be approved. If so, it puts matters back into our own hands.

I wonder what would happen if enough people in Pikeville, Tenn., where Taft is located, and beyond gathered together and loudly enough said "no."

People can get put in jail for a variety of reasons. If all other options are exhausted, I wonder what message it would send if Juvenile Court judges, parents, Taft employees, Taft students, elected officials and even columnists joined together in civil disobedience.

Breaking the law might just be the way to keep Taft open.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.