By Hedy Weinberg
Sixteen-year-old T.W. of Shelby County, a client of ACLU-TN and other local partners, was held in solitary confinement for six months while awaiting trial due to Tennessee’s ironically-named “safekeeping” statute.
This law is used to remove certain pretrial detainees — including pregnant women, people with illnesses or mental health issues, and even young people like T.W. — from local jails and to send them to state prison and other facilities if the local jail is deemed “insufficient” to house them.
If they are transferred to a state facility, which happens in nearly every case, current state policy then requires safe keepers to be kept in solitary confinement — even if they are a juvenile, have no disciplinary infractions, or have mental health issues.
There is currently no formal review process in place to identify whether and when inmates should be returned to their original counties and a recent investigation found that the average safe keeper stay was 328 days, but could be as long as 4-1/2 years.
Under the century-old safe keeper law, T.W. was transferred for more than four months to the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, where she was kept under maximum security conditions, spending 23 to 24 hours a day in her cell.
She was allowed to shower three times a week and exercise for 30-60 minutes twice a week. She was shackled whenever she was taken out of the cell to use the shower or exercise in the yard.
A visiting teacher was permitted to pass materials to her through a slot in the cell door, but they had no face-to-face interaction. Being housed three hours away from her home in Memphis, her family was unable to visit her.
The devastating social and psychological effects of solitary confinement have been documented in adults and are even worse for youths whose brains and bodies have not yet finished developing. Juveniles kept in solitary often suffer higher incidences of mental illness upon release.
For children exhibiting behavioral or mental health issues, solitary confinement can actually provoke or worsen these problems. And research shows that suicide rates for children in solitary are far higher than for those held in general population.
State Sen. Mark Norris and State Rep. Ron Travis have sponsored legislation that is a step in the right direction toward improving conditions of pretrial confinement for people with special needs.
As amended, SB 1575/HB 2106 ensures that when a county jail is insufficient to house a juvenile, he or she will go to the nearest sufficient juvenile detention facility in the state rather than state prison.
It also allows judges to move prisoners if conditions at a facility become insufficient for any reason and requires a judicial review every 30 days to determine whether any modifications to confinement are needed, including reviewing the use of solitary confinement at the facility where the person is being held.
This legislation would vastly improve conditions for young people, like T.W., awaiting trial. The current law is clearly dangerous and unjust and violates the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal treatment under the law.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The way we treat the accused and imprisoned in our society has immense implications for the way our communities function.
The goal of our justice system should be rehabilitation — especially for young people who have a significant capacity to learn, mature and reenter society as productive, capable adults.
We not only can do better than the current safekeeping law for young people like T.W., we must. Their future is our future.
Hedy Weinberg is executive director of ACLU of Tennessee.