On Wednesday, a watchdog group released a scathing report on conditions at the state-run Wilder Youth Development Center.
Two outside groups conducted a 20-month investigation and found numerous violations of federal and state law. The content of the new report raises questions about the ability of the Department of Children’s Services to carry out its mission to care for the state’s most vulnerable children.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Wilder Youth Development Center?
The Wilder Youth Development Center is a juvenile justice center for boys and young men in Fayette County, Tennessee. Wilder is a “hardware-secure” facility, which essentially means residents are locked inside. Located in Somerville, about a 50-minute drive east of Memphis, Wilder is operated by the Department of Children’s Services. It opened in 1971 and is named after Fayette County native John S. Wilder, a longtime state senator and lieutenant governor of Tennessee.
Under state law, youth development centers are required to provide therapeutic and rehabilitative services to juvenile offenders. There were once many state-run youth development centers in Tennessee, but many have been closed or privatized, leaving only Wilder.
Last year there was a series of escapes and attempted escapes in Wilder.
Special report:‘Noodles on the head’: From bounties to beatings, new report details abuse at state-run youth center
What happened to the other state-run youth development centers?
In 2017, the state closed the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville and privatized the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Dandridge. In 2012, the state closed the Taft Youth Development Center in Pikeville.
Despite the closure of other facilities, Wilder’s population has declined. It was regularly over 100 just a few years ago, but now there are fewer than 40 young people there, according to the Department of Children’s Services.
This is due in part to a long decline in youth crime rates, escapes and attempted escapes in several institutions, as well as the growing commitment of the juvenile justice field to use community resources to rehabilitate young people, instead of sending them to establishments like Wilder.
Related:Woodland Hills experienced violence long before the escapes and riots
Who is detained in Wilder?
Male adolescent and young adult offenders are held at Wilder. The population is more than 90% black and more than 80% of residents have a disability, according to the new report from Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center.
As of Tuesday, there were 15 inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 inmates between the ages of 14 and 17, according to DCS spokeswoman Sandra Brandon. These youths were convicted of offenses including murder, rape, child rape, attempted child rape, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, carjacking, burglary and domestic assault, Brandon said.
But Tennessee’s most violent young criminals are typically transferred to adult prisons, especially those approaching their 18th birthday.
Under state law, youth development centers are mandated to be places where young people receive the skills and treatment necessary to succeed in society after their release.
“We are operating under a law that does not contain the word ‘punishment,'” Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael said. “And our goal is really rehabilitation.”
But the report released Wednesday by Disability Rights Tennessee and Youth Law Center says Wilder is not living up to his mandate.
What did the report say?
The report presents a litany of state and federal law violations. He alleges that staff physically assaulted the youths and instigated the youths to assault each other by offering them ‘bonuses’ of Ramen noodles and other snacks.
He also said the residents had been victims of sexual abuse, as well as an arbitrary use of solitary confinement. The report also alleges that the residents have not received adequate medical or mental health care and are instead being prescribed psychotropic drugs without proper supervision.
The report also says Wilder fails to provide adequate education, including special education, and fails to provide evidence-based therapies and programs. It also says Wilder denies young people their care programs, such as sports or the arts, as well as contact with family and religious services and grievance processes.
How did the Ministry of Children’s Services respond?
Many of the issues listed in the report had already been resolved, said Ministry of Children’s Services spokeswoman Sandra Brandon. She also said the department disputes some of the report’s findings, but she did not specify which ones. The department only received the report on Tuesday, and Brandon said he would undertake a full review of its contents.
Why did Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center look into Wilder?
The federal government supports a system of state-wide watchdogs called Protection and Advocacy Systems that have the power to monitor and investigate state agencies to ensure they are not infringing on people’s rights. disabilities. Tennessee’s protective and advocacy agency is Disability Rights Tennessee, a nonprofit organization.
The group began watching Wilder after hearing reports of abuse there and partnered with the Youth Law Center to help produce the report.
Although the report was limited to Wilder, investigators said youths they interviewed at the facility indicated that Wilder was not substantially different from other private facilities in Tennessee.