Teenagers at a Tennessee detention facility have been sexually abused, locked in isolation cells for 23 hours a day and set up by staff to fight each other, two prominent advocacy groups have found.
The disturbing findings are part of a recently released report detailing the results of an 18-month investigation by Disability Rights Tennessee and the California-based Youth Law Center. The watchdog groups say employees at the Wilder Youth Development Center in Somerville have subjected teens to “severe physical, sexual and mental abuse.”
Youth ages 14 through 18 who have committed crimes are placed at the detention facility in Fayette County, just outside Memphis. Wilder is run by the state’s Department of Children’s Services, but those sent there lack access to legally mandated education and religious programming, the report states, a violation of their First Amendment rights.
“The conditions at Wilder really are inexcusable, they’re deplorable,” Jack Derryberry, legal director of Disability Rights Tennessee, said in a press conference. “This is not what a child who is supposed to be being treated and rehabilitated should have to experience.”
In a statement provided to The Imprint, a spokesperson for the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) said the state agency has already corrected a number of the concerns highlighted in the report, but disagreed with some of the findings.
“DCS understands the challenges of providing a secure environment while also providing rehabilitative services to violent teen offenders,” the statement read. “We are confident with the support of our providers, community partners, legislators, and staff, we can work towards a resolution to any concern that may exist.”
Wilder is the only state-run “youth development center” in Tennessee, a secure compound ringed with razor wire. Its beds are reserved for teenage boys who have been convicted of serious crimes and “cannot receive treatment and services in a less restrictive environment.” The rural facility opened in 1971 and for decades was run by the state’s Department of Corrections before Children’s Services took over in 1996.
The findings of the watchdog groups’ investigation are detailed in a 50-page report released Wednesday. Its authors include staff at the Youth Law Center, a national organization that has long fought for ending the institutionalization of children, and Disability Rights Tennessee. Under state and federal law, the state-based organization has the authority to pursue legal, administrative and other remedies to protect people with disabilities.
The report describes excessive and inappropriate use of solitary confinement, with teens confined to cells infested with mold and bugs, and smelling of urine. Despite state laws and policies limiting the use of isolation to a “temporary response” for teens at imminent risk of harming themselves or others, investigators found the children were placed in isolation for minor infractions, and for far longer than allowed, sometimes months at a time. Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center found youth in isolation growing increasingly despondent and suicidal, even those placed there on suicide watch.
Tennessee state law requires the provision of “cost-effective” and evidence-based services for youth in the justice system, and stipulates that whenever possible, they receive those services in their communities. Investigators found that despite daily operational costs of more than $48,000, there was “little evidence” that these requirements were being met. Those failures place Wilder in violation of state and federal laws, investigators concluded.
The Department of Children’s Services, they write, “is defaulting to the most expensive, least effective, and most restrictive options” for the teens in residence.
Conditions at Wilder disproportionately impact Black youth and those with disabilities. While Black children account for roughly 20% of the state’s youth population, 97% of Wilder residents are Black. Eighty percent have intellectual and physical disabilities.
Interviews with residents at Wilder and reviews of case records revealed that children reported staff hitting, choking and standing on them. One young man said he cried out for his mother and “felt like George Floyd” during one beating by staff.
Investigators also discovered that staff members incited violence among the teens by placing what report authors described as “bounties” on those children they had selected to be targeted. As a reward for peer-on-peer assaults, the report found, youth were promised freeze dried ramen packets — a practice the detained teens told investigators is referred to as “putting noodles on heads.”
Multiple youth reported a particular male staff member offered them bribes to undress in front of him and made lewd comments about their bodies while watching them shower.
Youth who feel unsafe, and those who experienced or witnessed abuse at Wilder, appear to have little recourse. The facility lacks a clear and transparent grievance process, and when grievances are filed, they are commonly ignored, the advocacy groups found. Between 2019 and 2020, nearly 300 grievances were filed on the facility, but only three follow-up hearings ensued.
“Nothing gets fixed that’s against staff because they are the ones who go through grievances,” a teen named Jayden told investigators.
Concerns about safety and maltreatment at the facility are not new to the Department of Children’s Services. A 2020 audit by the state comptroller found the agency failed to ensure Wilder had “corrected potentially harmful practices that risk the safety of the children who are in their custody.” The state also reported that employees who had repeatedly been investigated for misconduct remained employed at the youth lockup, without proper review or disciplinary action.
In a statement, state officials responding to request for comment noted that their efforts to rectify problems at Wilder included the termination of “employees who did not follow policy and procedure guidelines.” They did not provide further details, however.
Inadequate treatment and education
Concerns at Wilder are widespread. Legal advocates for children and disabled people report that 78% of detained youth are prescribed psychotropic medications. Yet there are no psychologists or therapists on staff for the dozens of teens housed at the facility. Few if any rehabilitative services are provided to address the central issues that brought the youth to the detention facility — including substance abuse, sexual aggression and gang involvement. In the year and half the disability rights monitors spent monitoring Wilder, only one rehabilitation program was offered to those who spend a year or more in detention: 10 weeks of anger management classes.
Rather than providing “youth development” as the facility’s name describes, Wilder is “run like a dangerous jail with few, if any, necessary services to help youth,” the report states.
Meanwhile, children do not receive enough school instruction time to meet state requirements for graduation, advocates found, leading to violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
One teen told investigators he arrived at Wilder at age 15, and three years later, “I don’t feel like I have changed or had a chance to grow.”
Calls for change
Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center outline both short- and long-term suggestions for improving conditions at Wilder, and throughout the state’s juvenile justice system.
Recommendations for immediate fixes include terminating abusive staff, establishing a safe and transparent method for youth to report maltreatment, and ending solitary confinement. Advocates say the state needs to contract with a psychiatrist able to review and monitor medication, and evaluate whether or not the facility is appropriate for youth struggling with disabilities and mental health conditions.
They also call on officials to hire credentialed teachers and provide better access to special education services, religious services and regular connection with teens’ families.
Looking ahead, they want kids kept out of Wilder altogether, with greater reliance earlier on in a youth’s life on community-based programming and therapeutic foster homes.
“Youth need services earlier,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center. “They need those services to be accessible in their communities. That is better for youth, it is better for families and it is critical for community safety.”