It's been almost thirteen years since I first stepped inside the gates of Woodland Hills Youth Development Center. For many, it marks the beginning of a slippery slope into disenfranchisement, which remains in full effect over a decade later. It's abundantly clear to me that little has changed in the management of the facility or in the State's treatment of children who are declared to be in need of intensive rehabilitative measures. If anything, this facility that claims to be a place for development of young people continues instead to prove itself conducive to their self-destruction and social dehumanization. All youth come into this world as "dependent," relying on families and communities to guide and direct us. Somewhere along the way, however, an impulsive or reckless act left some of us labelled as "delinquents," and by being placed in the custody of the State, we were cast into the outskirts of society. For those of us unfortunate enough to enter the gates of Woodland Hills, our chance for successful development dimmed considerably as were were then considered no better that demons and deviants. As I recently sat and watched the news reports of the thirty-two escapes and overnight riots, I couldn't help but say to myself, "It's been a long time coming." One can only hope that change will soon follow.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services has always struggled to know how to handle children placed in its care. For children with "happy feet," Woodland Hills was supposedly escape-proof, a claim proven false a few days ago. Woodland Hills is located in Nashville's prison district. The youth facility is a short walk from the adult prisons and is similar in its construction. The compound is surrounded by tall gravity fences designed to thwart escapes, and the entrance is guarded by a manned security shack. It is home to young people whom DCS has declared dangerous or defiant and in need of the most strict security and most intensive treatment the State offers.
I was a resident of Woodland Hills for a year and a half. I was moved to the "inescapable" facility after repeated escapes and escape attempts from lower security facilities. There were treatment plans with vague goals, but no real opportunities to receive meaningful treatment or even understand the goals. The treatment level system was a sliding scale, and once a child reached Level 4, she was supposedly within arm's reach of release; however, "arm's reach" was not defined. Furthermore, a minor infraction for disrespect on a counselor's whim could result in being sent from Level 4 back to Level 1, pushing the elusive release date even further away. Classes were offered that provided high school credit, but no opportunities to gain real understanding. Staff policed the dormitories, but they did not work with the children. Seemingly, the only interaction that the staff were pleased to engage in with the children was restraint. For example, refusing to face a wall for time-out could result in use of force, which inevitably led to an all-out brawl, with officers punching, kicking and throwing elbows. Only the child was charged with assault, however. It was clear then and I'm sure it is clear now that while children move aimlessly through the program at Woodland Hills, there is no concrete correlation between their behavior and their success or failure in the program.
The morning after the thirty-two residents escaped from Woodland Hills, local and national media propagated fear by characterizing the young people as felons on the loose, potentially lethal to anyone they encountered. I simply shook my head. The news outlets warned citizens not to approach suspicious-looking youth, whatever that means, and call came in about scenes as benign as teenagers waiting at bus stops or walking in groups of three or more. Helicopters patrolled the skies while black SUVs and police cruisers roamed the streets. In the first twenty-four hours, nineteen of the children were apprehended and charged with felony escape. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the teenagers. I heard one man remark, "If I see a kid out there, I'm shooting." I wondered how many George Zimmerman's were being created by the latest fear-mongering propaganda. My chest tightened thinking about the dangers facing young boys, not only the escaped teens, but all teens walking Nashville's streets, any of whom might seem "suspicious" to a fearful, gun-toting suburbanite.
In the days that followed, the conflict spurred a familiar dance. The Woodland Hills administration exerted its power by imposing restrictive conditions at the facility, and the residents resisted with another escape from the dorm and more riots. Ringleaders were targeted and isolated, but others took their place. Restraints, violence, and intimidation were the tools of the Powers against the essentially powerless. While most people likely see the Woodland Hills situation as an escalating problem, I prefer to view it as an opportunity for understanding and reconciliation between our disinherited youth and the communities from which they are estranged.
History teaches us that conflict can serve as fertile soil in which democracy and social change can grow and flourish. Conflict can bring some balance when one group has held too much power for too long. Conflict can bring adversaries to the table. Perhaps dialogue will spring forth. Oppressive paradigms may be overturned. Can we move from power plays to collaboration? Will we sift through our differences and locate our common interests? Is it possible to work together for resolutions that establish true community?
Over the last few days, months, and years, the streets have come alive with rage over the blood of young people being needlessly spilled. Their blood is on the hands of every person who, out of ignorance, targets a "suspicious-looking youth," and on the news outlets that play to our fears and prejudices. The time has come for us as a society to re-think our views about our children, particularly poor children and children of color, and the methods we permit the government to employ when errant children fall into its grasp. The conflict at Woodland Hills presents Nashville with a beautiful opportunity to reap a harvest of peace and understanding and mutual concern.
It is true that some young people pose a threat to themselves and other around them. The residents of Woodland Hills are not angels or babies. I sure wasn't. Neither are they monsters. They are, for all their faults, our children. The United States Supreme Court has taken notice that children are physiologically and psychologically distinct from adults. Their level of culpability for wrongdoing is different from that of adults. Their capacity for rehabilitation and positive change is great. (See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), and its progeny). The youth at Woodland Hills are not to be subjected to mere punitive, retributive measures. Rehabilitation is the top priority for these young people. Treating them the way we would adult criminals is not only shortsighted, it goes against Supreme Court case law. They are not wards of the criminal justice system; they are in the care of DCS, whose ideological commitment is to protect and provide for children who have no one to adequately care for them. Of utmost importance is the need to develop these young people and foster in them the ability to successfully reintegrate into their communities.
It appears that somewhere along the way, those in charge of helping our youth develop got lost in the tough-on-crime political rhetoric, bureaucratic ass-covering, and pandering to an uninformed and frightened electorate. Today, however, a beacon of hope has been lit, and we can re-focus on the truly pressing issues: How can we effectively rehabilitate our wayward youth? Why have our current methods failed so miserably? What is a next step?
The conflict has sown a seed. Will we reap the harvest?
When I was a resident at Woodland Hills over a decade ago, it was understood that most of us who left would be locked up again, be killed, or become a teen parent. We referred to the lack of a promising future as the Woodland Hills Curse. Over the years, I saw many people confirm the truth of the Curse, and I became an example of it as well. As I got older, I came to realize that this was not a matter of luck or fortune, however. The only misfortune was that instead of being placed in an environment where a collaborative effort toward rehabilitation and development was made, we were tossed into a social refuse bin, warehoused and pitted against authority figures who would gladly beat us into submission at every opportunity. All that developed within us was our bacchanalian proclivities and violent resistance to coercion. We entered the gates of Woodland Hills desperately in need of caring intervention, but we encountered only new ways of being broken that sent us down the path to predetermined fates. Thirteen years later, I'm sitting in a prison cell, thinking, "It's been a long time coming." I only hope that change will soon follow.