STATE CHANGES “SAFEKEEPING” LAW AFTER MEMPHIS YOUTH SENT TO SOLITARY IN ADULT PRISON (2018)
In May 2018, Tennessee Governor Bill Halsam signed a bill ending the practice of housing adults in adult prisons. The bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) bans sending youth to state prisons and create a review process of adults sent to solitary confinement. Prior to the legislation, a Tennessee “safekeeping” law allowed youth charged as adults to be held in solitary confinement in adult prisons for “safe-keeping,” a practice which Tennessee’s Governor denounced openly. After advocacy efforts on behalf of several girls held in adult prisons drew national media coverage, Tennessee lawmakers pushed major changes to the safekeeping law.
In 2017, a Memphis judge ordered 15-year old Terionya Winton to be held at an adult women’s prison in Nashville under the safekeeping law. Terionya was held in solitary confinement where her attorney reported she “can shower three days a week and go out for recreation two days a week,” but “[w]hen she leaves her cell, her feet and hands are shackled.” The prison is 200 miles away from her home, which makes it difficult for her mother to visit. According to an investigative report by the Marshall Project, Terionya Winton is one of three teenage girls Shelby County has sent to safekeeping since 2011. The Tennessee Department of Corrections stated that Terionya must be held in solitary in order to keep her separated from adults.
Rosalyn Holmes is another 16-year-old girl held pre-trial at the Tennessee State Penitentiary campus under the same practice – also by Shelby County. Rosalyn was held on $60,000 bail, which the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization paid in May 2018, securing her release.
In February 2018, the Tennessee legislature introduced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, or HB 2271. The bill was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) as comprehensive legislation designed to correct many flaws in the state’s juvenile justice system, including limiting punitive isolation for youth and eliminating the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception, which allows judges to indefinitely detain youth who have committed noncriminal offenses such as truancy. In addition to several changes that support better outcomes for youth in Tennessee, “prohibits the use of seclusion for punitive purposes pre-adjudication or post-adjudication for any child in a facility pursuant to the detention provisions.” HB 2271 does not, however, include language to limit placing youth in isolation in situations where facility staff deem seclusion necessary for a youth’s own safety.
LITIGATION – FRAZIER v. HOMMICH (2016 – Present)
On March 22, 2017, the federal judge granted a preliminary injunction to prevent the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center from putting any youth in punitive solitary confinement until the resolution of a litigation by the ACLU of Tennessee against the county. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has standards for state-run facilities, but those standards to not apply to county detention facilities. The federal court also granted a motion in February 2017 to expand the group of plaintiffs to include “all juveniles detained in the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center who are or were placed in solitary confinement or isolation for punitive reasons from April 15, 2015, to present.”
In April 2016, the ACLU of Tennessee joined litigation, Frazier v. Hommrich, against Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center on behalf of a fifteen year old boy with developmental disabilities who was put in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day as punishment for non-violent behavior including “hollering, rapping, and making gang signs.” The lawsuit was filed by Sharieka Frazier on behalf of her son, who alleged that the facility was aware that the child likely had a mental illness but did not permit a court-ordered mental health evaluation to take place while he was in solitary and denied any mental health services.
In April 2017, another lawsuit was filed against Williamson County, Tennessee for allowing a child to be sexually abused while in the Williamson County Detention Center in 2013 and then placed in solitary confinement for five weeks as punishment. When notified, the family claims, the judge took no action. The child, J.H., is no longer in custody. The litigation asks for compensation for J.H.’s mental health treatment and for a ban on solitary confinement.
TASK FORCE JUVENILE JUSTICE REPORT (2017)
In May 2017, the Tennessee Governor, Supreme Court justices, the Department of Children’s Services, and others requested the creation of an Joint Ad-Hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice (Task Force) to investigate and make recommendations to improve the state’s juvenile justice system. The Task Force’s Report and recommendations were released in December 2017. The recommendations included prohibiting solitary confinement for youth in detention (pg. 21).