NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials plan to beef up security at a juvenile detention center where three major escape attempts in less than a month have worried the facility's neighbors, but they also want to keep the it from becoming too much like an adult prison.
Jim Henry, commissioner of the state Department of Children's Services, told The Associated Press on Monday that he plans to seek court approval to be able to lock the teens in their rooms and to give guards access to tear gas in emergencies. But he said he does not support arming the guards.
"We're not going to re-create a correctional type facility, but we do need security so people can't just attack a guard anytime they want to," Henry said.
Authorities said 13 teens escaped from the Woodland Hills complex in Nashville on Friday night after overpowering a guard and squeezing through the main gate. All of them were apprehended by Sunday morning.
That incident followed a Sept. 1 breakout by 32 teens who kicked out metal panels under windows to get into the courtyard and then slipped under a weak spot under a fence. All but two of teens were later caught or turned in. Two nights later riots erupted in the facility, with youths breaking out of their dorms and brandishing fire extinguishers and sticks. The teens did not get past the perimeter fence during that incident.
The chain-link fence around the facility is not topped with barbed wire or razor wire, as would be standard in many prisons, nor was it sunk in concrete at the bottom until after the Sept. 1 breakout.
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, called on officials to determine whether any existing practices or policies at the facility "would motivate kids to be running at such an alarming rate."
Schindler, a former interim director of Washington's juvenile justice agency, said locking down security can spur teenagers to redouble their efforts to escape.
"The very appealing thing to do is put in very hard, secure approaches, whether it's locking doors on the dorms or using Mace or pepper spray," he said. "Unfortunately, I think that's just going have the unintended consequence of making the situation worse, not better."
Henry attributed the most recent breakout to a failure by a guard who failed for follow procedures.
"One of the staff came up to the door, and the guy just kind of blasts out of the door and hits him and starts attacking him," he said. "We have policies set up where that's not supposed to happen."
The facility has a long history of violence, allegations of sexual abuse and previous efforts to break out. The Tennessean newspaper reported that between January and early September of this year, there were 145 reported incidents of violence at the facility including 39 assaults by teens on each other and 51 assaults by teens on staff.
The violence and escape attempts have unsettled the nearby community of Bordeaux, neighborhood association president Ruby Baker told the paper.
"We have neighbors here who are elderly, who live alone, and this has really stirred up their fears," Baker said. "We've had three incidents just in one month. There is something wrong with the system, with the process, something. "
Tennessee has been operating its youth detention centers under a consent decree stemming from a 1976 class action lawsuit about the treatment of juveniles. Under the most recent agreement from 1987, the state is barred from locking teens' rooms from the inside and from using tear gas.
Henry said as the state has tried to place more juvenile offenders in homes outside of juvenile detention facilities, the remaining population in detention has become more difficult to deal with.
"We've got tougher kids in the facilities now than we've ever had," he said. "This particular set of kids is pretty tough and they're difficult to handle."