At Tennessee Youth Prison, A History of Abuse

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On Monday, nearly three dozen youth at a Tennessee detention facility slipped under a chain-link fence and escaped to freedom.

The youth reportedly took advantage of an overnight shift change in which staff members were otherwise distracted in order to conduct their brazen escape.

All but six have since been captured.

On Wednesday, more than 20 youths — some of whom had been involved in the earlier breakout — engaged in a disturbance on the grounds of the detention center, chasing staff members with sticks and bats. Two detention staffers were seriously hurt in the incident.

By Thursday morning, officers from the Tennessee Department of Corrections who are trained in prison riot situations entered the grounds of the detention facility to restore calm. Ten juvenile “ringleaders” were detained; the rest were sent back to their dormitories.

The incidents happened at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, a camp for young offenders with a sordid past. And while it’s too soon to say what caused this week’s disturbances, it’s worth noting that the facility has repeatedly been at the center of investigations involving young inmates alleging sexual abuse by staff members.

Woodland Hills is known to the Department of Justice as a facility with the highest number of sexual abuse claims by young male inmates. The stories that have leaked from the walls are nothing short of distressing.

A 2010 investigative report by the local newspaper there found that female staff members at Woodland Hills had repeatedly solicited oral sex from young male inmates. One female member of the kitchen staff was accused of transmitting chlamydia to a 17-year-old inmate through a “sexual encounter,” the paper reported. The staff member was cleared in four separate cases of alleged sexual abuse, even though she failed a lie detector test; she was finally charged after she turned herself into police, the paper reported.

In another case, a female guard continued to work at the detention facility even though she had been at the focus of more than five sex abuse case previously. That guard also lived with a man whom she had met as a youth at the center, according to a letter and several other documents obtained by The Tennessean.

Prison officials have dismissed claims of sexual abuse at the jail as a fallacy borne from disgruntled young souls who are being punished for societal wrongdoings. But DOJ officials who were involved in an audit of Woodland Hills and other detention facilities say otherwise, noting that the inmates were promised anonymity and that a computer algorithm had been used to analyze any potential inconsistencies in the sexual abuse reports.

Other facilities fared relatively lower than Woodland Hills when it came to reported cases of sexual abuse, which caused investigators to raise concerns.

“I would argue also that it’s very difficult for administrators to make arguments of false allegations, because why are kids in these facilities less truthful than kids in other facilities?” DOJ official Allen Beck told The Tennessean in 2010. “What it definitely suggests is these numbers need to be considered and taken seriously.”

Updated figures released in 2013 showed that all but four states had some level of reported sexual abuse at juvenile detention facilities, with 13 facilities considered “high rate.” Of the more than 1,300 young male interviewed by DOJ officials for sexual abuse in 2012, more than 89 percent had reported the offender as a female staff member.

That same year, more than 25 children had made allegations of rape against a staff member at Woodland Hills within a three-month period. All but two of their claims were dismissed.

Matthew Keys is  a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.

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