Youth detention facilities likely an issue at Tennessee governor's budget hearings

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The head of the state's troubled Department of Children's Services says the department is taking steps to prevent future incidents at a youth detention center hit by recent rioting and escapes.

Commissioner Jim Henry revealed some of the department's plan during a budget presentation to Gov. Bill Haslam, who began his annual budget hearings Monday.

On Sept. 1, more than 30 teenagers escaped from Woodland Hills in Nashville. All were eventually recaptured. That escape was the first of three major incidents at the facility in September. There also was a riot in the yard and another breakout in which 13 teens escaped.

Since then, state officials have taken steps such as beefing up security at that facility and two other detention centers.

Henry told the governor and reporters on Monday that he's working to "change the environment" of the facility by hiring more staff and therapists to work with the teenagers. He also said older trouble-making teens were being moved temporarily to other detention centers.

"You're going to have a staff that will work with one unit all the time," Henry said. "You're going to have therapists that are going to be working with kids all the time that they know, instead of shifting them around."

He said teens will also be rewarded for participating in programs to better themselves, such as pursuing their GED.

Security improvements at Woodland Hills since the Sept. 1 breakout include securing the bottom of the fence that surrounds the facility in concrete. Workers also have reinforced aluminum panels under the dormitory windows that the teens were able to kick out during the first escape.

Additionally, Henry said Monday that the department has gotten court approval to lock teens in their rooms in cases of emergency. He said they're also seeking approval to be able to lock them in anytime, as well as use pepper spray if necessary.

Critics have said there needs to be a better ratio of guards to teens at the facilities, considering that guards were overpowered during the breakouts.

Henry said that the department is addressing that issue and plans to use the more than $33 million it is requesting for next year's budget to hire more staff, as well as the therapists who will be working closely with teens.

"The budget affords us the opportunity to go to 1 to 12 staffing, which we think is a huge win," he said. "Before it was 1 to 16."

Some believe previous budget cuts contributed to problems at the Woodland Hills facility.

"Without more budget, you will not see change," said Everette Parrish, an attorney appointed to defend the civil rights of youths at Woodland Hills. "So it's paramount that they have more funding."

In August, Haslam asked state agencies to submit plans detailing how they would cut up to 7 percent of their budgets. He said Monday that his request "doesn't mean that will happen."

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