Listen to Bobby Allyn’s story for NPR’s Morning Edition:
The hallways of Woodland Hills evoke an eerily quiet high school, only there are cages enforcing almost every window. Guards sitting at desks man nearly every corner. When it comes time for lights out, which usually happens around 8:30 p.m., the inmates (or students, as DCS insists they be called) file into individual 8-by-10 concrete rooms furnished with a metal toilet and a small desk. There’s a vertical sliver of a window providing the rooms with a flash of the outside world.
When a teen wakes up in his Woodland Hills cell, he starts with 50 points. According to Melvin Whitlow, the facility’s superintendent, every time he acts out, points are stripped away. Likewise, when a teen shows cooperative behavior, officials place him in the “honors dorm,” where he’s given perks like a boom box, video games and is allowed to stay up later. The site is comprised of several dorms that students are shuffled between, depending on behavior.
“It’s that carrot and stick. It’s what motivates you to do better,” Whitlow says.
As we walk through a building full of classrooms, a boy presses his face and hands against a small window inside a solitary confinement room. Whitlow points sternly at him, suggesting he back away. The boy then vanishes from the window.
“That young man is there for what we call a time out,” Whitlow says. “He had some issues in the classroom, and he’s placed there to calm down.”
It doesn’t mean that boy’s daily behavior score was zero, Whitlow explains:
“The key thing is always remember, don’t box a kid into a point of no return,” he said. “If he’s had one incident over the course of the day and you take his whole day’s points, then you only leave him one option: act out the rest of the day.”
Every week, according to Whitlow, behavior records are evaluated. Some spend just one week in the perk-filled dorm, others spend months there.
“It’s up to you to lose the points based on your behavior during the day,” Whitlow said, “Did you clean up your room? Did you get up and do your hygiene uncoached? Did you line up and prepare to go to meals without being prompted? So, you have the points, but they’re yours to lose if you don’t do the right thing over the course of the day.”
A Month Of Violence
Earlier this month, 32 inmates broke out of Woodland Hills, the state’s most high-security juvenile detention facility. Days later, a mini-riot erupted, with teens brandishing pipes and spraying fire extinguishers in the yard outside of the dorms. And just last week, some dozen prisoners escaped. In the aftermath of one of the most tumultuous months for Woodland Hills, officials at the Department of Children’s Services are exploring what more can be done to control the state’s roughest teens.
After the first break out this month, officials strengthened the fence around the site, reinforced weak spots in the dorms, and hired ten more security guards (they have ten additional offers out).
Nonetheless, as a guard was making his rounds Friday night, several teens rushed him at once, assaulting him and stealing his radio and keys.
Then they took off toward a small gap at the entrance gate, according to DCS Spokesman Rob Johnson. “One of the smaller kids was able to wiggle through and then get into the guard house and open the gate for the rest of them,” Johnson said.
Authorities eventually caught all 13 and plan to press additional charges against them. Two 17-year-olds from the previous breakout are still at large.
Friday’s incident was the latest violent disturbance at the Woodland Hills center, which, records obtained by the Tennessean show, has a history of clashes between teens and security guards.
Taking Cues From Missouri
It’s something author Nell Bernstein has seen across the country. She recently published the book “Burning Down the House,” an in-depth look at youth incarceration.
Bernstein argues that teen delinquency is basically a developmental phase, and that kids who do get locked up tend to escalate once they’re released. In fact, she says, teens are twice as likely to end up in adult prison once they’ve been admitted into a juvenile detention facility, like Woodland Hills. “It’s a self-defeating cycle we have going on,” says Bernstein.
Nationwide, there’s been a 40 percent drop in teen incarceration, something that’s attributed to youth advocacy, scandals and a series of federal investigations. But also, Bernstein notes, the major decline came during a time of state budgetary crises. States were finding that other ways to deal with teen criminals — therapy programs and home-stay programs — were more affordable than bulking up teen populations in jail-like settings.
Bernstein, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other advocates point to Missouri as an exemplary model. There, troubled youth are placed in small residential centers that feel more like summer camp than jail. Instead of cells, they sleep in shared dorms. Officials respond to unruly behavior with group therapy, instead of solitary confinement. And the results have been impressive. According to Missouri officials, violence is lower and the kids rarely end up back in the system once they’re released.
Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute says places like New York, Washington, DC., and California have all adopted aspects of the Missouri Model for dealing with troubled teens.
“As the cost of confinement rose, it became pretty hard to justify why would we be needlessly sticking these kids in these places if it’s this expensive and we’re getting these outcomes.”
Tennessee officials say they are considering it, too. DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, at the urging of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, visited a facility for kids on the cusp of adult prison in Missouri and returned to Nashville feeling inspired by the softer approach.
But he says it’s impossible to dramatically reform Tennessee’s system overnight. In fact, the immediate response has been the exact opposite: shoring up security.