Wilder Center shows that we are at a crossroads

  • Lisa Primm is the executive director of Disability Rights Tennessee.
  • Jennifer Rodriguez is the Executive Director of the Youth Law Center.

The state of Tennessee’s juvenile justice system is at a crossroads.

A road perpetuates practices of abuse and neglect and is littered with children who suffer from bone and mental fractures and have long-term educational, medical and mental health issues as they return to their communities.

The second path, however, is toward a juvenile justice system that Tennesseans want: a system that provides proven, evidence-based rehabilitation services delivered in the community whenever possible and that stops abuse and neglect immediately. heartbreak of children by the Department of Children’s Service.

After:New Report Details Abuse at Wilder Youth Development Center: What to Know

Why no child should live in Wilder

Our organizations recently released a report, Designed to Fail, based on a two-year survey of the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center.

It’s called a ‘youth development centre’, but that’s not what the name implies and doesn’t help young people grow into successful adults; rather, it is run like a dangerous prison with little or no services needed to help young people.

Wilder Institution lacks proper education programs, mental health support, and basic life skills training. But worse, it’s a dangerous place where allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse go unaddressed, and young people live with mold inside the walls, rodent infestation and urine smells. and sewers. No child should have to live in a place like Wilder.

Our survey found that most young people interviewed at Wilder have traumatic and painful backgrounds, with mental health issues and other disabilities not properly assessed or diagnosed and untreated.

Many are re-traumatized by being regularly put in solitary confinement for normal teenage behaviors like spending too much time in the shower.

These young people – who are actually still children – are set up for a life of failure, a life that often begins in a juvenile detention center and then leads to the adult criminal justice system. Wilder makes life worse for these children.

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Stop the cycle of preparing children for incarceration

What is particularly tragic is that with the right support systems, proper treatment and education, this cycle could be stopped by helping our young people grow into healthy, productive adults and members of the community.

A graph from the Disability Rights Tennessee report on the Wilder Youth Development Center shows how black youth in Shelby County are overrepresented at the facility.

Children’s services should use community-based alternatives that have been proven to help young people and their families.

Cautious states and counties are designing systems for success, emphasizing both prevention (before youth enter the juvenile justice system) and rehabilitation programs (after youth are involved).

This allows young people to grow into law-abiding adults, while protecting them from further trauma, ultimately ensuring that communities are safer places to live.

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A super majority of Tennesseans want a better system

In 2021, a statewide public opinion survey was conducted of our state’s residents, commissioned by the Youth First Initiative and published by Tennessee Stand for Children.

Lisa Primm

The poll found that Tennessees support systemic change to help young people and their families, not an approach designed to fail.

Residents strongly support changes to the juvenile justice system such as those proposed in our report recommendations for the Wilder Center and other facilities in the state.

Tennessee residents overwhelmingly favor a youth justice system focused on prevention and rehabilitation (79%), with only 21% favoring a system focused on punishment and incarceration.

Tennessee residents agree that rehabilitation plans should include families (85% agree) and that children and youth should return to their families and communities whenever possible (77% agree).

Tennesseans’ support for these policies is based on the belief that most young people in the juvenile justice system are capable of positive change, that the system should provide them with more opportunities to improve, and that the best thing for society is to rehabilitate young people. so that they can become productive citizens.

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Heads of state should focus on solving the problem

Our hope is that Governor Bill Lee and the Ministry of Children’s Services will not play a political blame game or justify why things are the way they are.

Jennifer Rodriguez

Instead, let’s focus on those children and young people who, for whatever reason, are now in the care of our state. The Tennessee Legislature has passed good laws to keep young people safe, both those in foster care and the juvenile justice systems, in ways that also keep communities safe.

We have the opportunity to provide young people in Wilder with quality mental health treatment and an education that equips them with the skills they need to work and become positive, contributing members of their communities when they get out.

Our Governor has emphasized rehabilitation in the adult prison system. Let’s not wait for these young people to end up there. Let’s work together to help them become healthy and productive citizens of Tennessee.

Lisa Primm is the executive director of Disability Rights Tennessee and Jennifer Rodriguez is the executive director of the Youth Law Center.


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