Readers respond to report of children imprisoned in Rutherford County
Update, October 15, 2021: The office of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee released a statement Friday urging law enforcement agencies to conduct a review of Rutherford County Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport. “We are concerned about the recent reports and believe that the relevant judicial authorities should do a full review,” the governor’s office said in an email. “All decisions to bring charges are made within the judiciary.”
In 2016 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, 11 children were arrested, the youngest just 8 years old. The arrested children were charged with failing to stop a scuffle between two 5- and 6-year-old boys who beat an older boy. At least one of the arrested children did try to intervene. Some of the others hadn’t even been there. More importantly, the formal charge approved by the Justice Commissioners – “criminal responsibility for someone else’s conduct” – is not even a crime.
Police arrested four of the children straight from school. At the urging of an officer, her headmistress, Tammy Garrett, got three of them out of their classrooms.
Garrett and the assistant principal cried, as did the girls, when the police arrested the children and handcuffed two of them.
Another girl, a fourth grader, was picked up from her school bus and taken back to school. Scared and confused, she begged for her mother – then threw up.
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Think about how this experience would shake a child’s sense of security. Imagine that you are a child who turns to your headmistress and sees her as helpless as you. Imagine begging for your mother and being rejected. Imagine being handcuffed, isolated from any adults you trust to protect you, and locked in a holding cell. And imagine how you will feel later, when almost none of the adults face consequences, when they lock you and your friends in for no good reason, as they did in this case. You might end up with the impression that the way you were treated was okay.
After ProPublica published the story of Rutherford County and the judge behind its extraordinarily punitive (and often illegal) juvenile justice system, it quickly became clear: it was wrong.
As one of the play’s reporters, Ken Armstrong, wrote a Twitter thread it has been shared more than 90,000 times throughout history. Again and again the readers described the story as “nauseating”, “outrageous” and “terrifying”. One wrote, “Stop the world, I have to get out and throw up.”
Chairman of the National Democratic Committee, Jaime Harrison tweeted, “What the hell is wrong with people ?!” A Tennessee Senator described the situation as “nightmare.” Other wrote, “This is a mess and we have to do a lot better.” A representative of the state of Tennessee tweeted, “Our Democratic Group will work to ensure that this never happens again.”
George Takei, an actor who spent much of his childhood in American internment camps, simply wrote: âNo words. “
The President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called for a state civil rights investigation.
Within four days, the President of Middle Tennessee State University informed faculties and staff that Donna Scott Davenport, the juvenile judge at the center of the investigation, “is no longer affiliated with the university.” Davenport had been a lecturer at the school where she taught a course on juvenile justice for many years.
So far, everyone involved in this case has either still held their job in the judiciary or has left this job of their own accord. Davenport is up for re-election next year (she previously said she would run for another eight-year term). She declined to be interviewed through a Rutherford County spokesman for our first story.
The story of Rutherford County’s broken juvenile justice system doesn’t end with these 11 children, but they are an example of it. I strongly encourage you to read them whole story. In the meantime I have noticed the following points:
Years of failures in local guidelines require parallel failures in government oversight.
For years, Rutherford County used an illegal system developed by Detention Center Director Lynn Duke to decide when children should be detained before their hearing. It allowed the facility to hold children for days, depending on whether the staff found them “stubborn”. The system defined “unruly” as “true threat” but did not define “true threat” at all, which gave employees a great deal of discretion as to who to hold. For at least nine years this “filtering system” was a written procedure available to government inspectors but never flagged. Instead, the inspection reports focused on details such as the low level of graffiti in the prison.
Reporters asked for an interview with the longtime director of licenses for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to ask how inspectors could have overlooked what was going on. The department refused to provide the director.
In May 2017, in response to a lawsuit filed by the families of illegally imprisoned children, a federal judge ordered that the filter system should no longer be used because it was âdrasticallyâ deviating from normal standards. With “illegal incarceration,” he wrote, “children in Rutherford County suffer irreparable harm every day.”
The district has settled the lawsuit, but denies any wrongdoing.
Locking children up can be counterproductive.
Davenport, a juvenile judge in Rutherford County, has a monthly radio show where she talks frequently about the current breakdown in morality and parenting being the worst she has ever seen, and has said that children need consequences. “Being held in our facility is not a picnic at all,” she said. “It should not be. It’s a consequence for a plot. âArmstrong and her reporter Meribah Knight reviewed more than 60 hours of their radio show, and you can hear excerpts from it in the story.
However, several studies have shown that imprisoning children can do significant harm.
The lawyers who filed the lawsuit against the county cited research showing that children who have been arrested and detained are more likely to commit crimes in the future. They are more likely to have problems at school and struggle with drugs and alcohol. Detention also increases the likelihood of children getting injured.
A boy, Dylan, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and who had suicidal thoughts after his uncle died, was jailed for three days for stealing small items from cars and placed under extremely restrictive conditions. It was his first offense. He says his mental health was much worse after he was released. He tried to kill himself three times in the 16 months after his arrest.
Profit and incarceration are intertwined in Rutherford County.
Rutherford County doesn’t just lock up its own children. It also contracts with other counties to detain their children and charges $ 175 per day per child. “If we have empty beds, we’ll fill them with a paying customer,” Duke said at a public meeting. (She declined to be interviewed by our reporters.)Black children have been imprisoned for a crime that does not exist. Almost nothing happened to the responsible adults.
At one of those meetings, a public safety officer said it would be “cool” if the prison could be a “profit center” rather than a cost center.
Although the lawsuit resulted in Rutherford County incarcerating fewer of its own children, the county is continuing to expand its juvenile justice system. It added more staff and distributed a Marketing video entitled âWhat Can Rutherford County Detention Center Do For You?â featuring a B-roll of children in black and white striped uniforms to saxophone music.
As of this year, 39 counties signed contracts with Rutherford, as did the US Marshals Service.