Reopen Taft, 3 lawmakers say: Problems at Nashville youth facility prompt call for change

photo Teenagers spray a fire extinguisher at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville early Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.
photo Taft Youth Center

NASHVILLE - Three state lawmakers are urging the Haslam administration to consider reopening Taft Youth Development Center near Pikeville after mass escapes and a riot by teenage felons at a less secure facility in the middle of Nashville.

At the same time, the Tennessee State Employees Association is laying the problem at the feet of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, citing cuts he's made in the Department of Children's Services.

On Monday night, 32 teens escaped from the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center. Just two days later, two dozen detainees broke into the yard wielding sticks and spraying a fire extinguisher. Last night, a special strike force team with the Department of Correction that is authorized to use non-lethal force, including tasers, was sent to the facility to provide security, The Tennessean reported.

The problems shed light on the difficulty of maintaining order at a center where most of the 14- to 19-year-olds have committed at least three felonies, The Associated Press reported.

In 2012, Haslam followed advice from then-DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day to shut down Taft, which supporters said had successfully housed the "worst of the worst" teen criminals in rural Bledsoe County for decades. O'Day called it a necessary cost-saving measure and insisted other youth centers were up to handling the youths.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, wrote to O'Day's replacement, DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, that he and other lawmakers have "given the other Youth Centers two years to adjust and handle these youths" since Taft closed.

"However, due to escalating issues ... we believe we cannot sit back any longer and watch as the violence continues to escalate," Sexton wrote.

The letter was also signed by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and Rep. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta.

Between July and September of 2012, police had to be called to Woodland Hills at least 47 times for assistance, which surpassed total police visits for the previous two years combined. Among the acts of violence listed in police records is a guard trapped in a headlock and repeatedly punched by a young man. Another assault involved four youths ambushing a staff member and beating him until he was rescued by colleagues.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice ranked Woodland Hills as 13th in the country among juvenile facilities with reports of sexual abuse by staffers. In a 2004 breakout attempt, more than a dozen teens armed with broom handles and hurling bricks injured 16 staffers before they were dispersed by police in riot gear.

Everette Parrish, an appointed attorney for juveniles housed at Woodland Hills, said the state had dialed back the population there from 140 to 80 this year because of a shortage of guards.

"That was a good example of DCS responding in a way they could control the kids -- so they thought," he said.

Henry told the AP on Thursday that policies will be reviewed to see if guards could be given weapons such as stun guns to help control unruly detainees. Currently, guards do not carry weapons and must rely on talking with the inmates to quell disturbances.

Henry also said parts of the facility's structure are being looked at, and officials will try to figure out how to better help detainees who suffer from mental illness or drug addiction. Despite being perceived as tough, most of the youths are "damaged when they come to us ... They're angry."

"What we're going to go less to is a correctional mentality," said Henry, who plans to give a report to Haslam next week.

State employees are putting on pressure as well. TSEA President Bryan Merritt complained of inadequate staffing, saying the association has been "greatly troubled" by the unstable situation at Woodland Hills in Nashville, two teen suicides in an East Tennessee facility and other problems.

"I think we can all agree that staff, client and public safety has to be a priority to everyone," Merritt said.

The group says DCS' budget has been slashed nearly 40 percent since Haslam took office.

"Gov. Haslam says he is running Tennessee like a business," TSEA Executive Director John Summers said in a news release. "But, is it good business practice to reduce a department's budget and staff to the point where services are negatively impacted and, in some instances, lives are jeopardized?"

He likened state services and employees to a "rubber band" stretching to their "breaking point."

The Associated Press and staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.