While state lawmakers prepare to pass judgment on Taft Youth Development Center, either sending it to the guillotine or keeping it alive, some voices calling for its rescue come from those who say they know it best.
One Hamilton County mother with lupus weeps at the thought that Taft could be shuttered before her son gets his GED and welding certificates that could put his life on the right path.
A Davidson County mother praises the “turnaround” her son saw at Taft, while her son says the center set him on a course for the future.
A Lewisburg, Tenn., teen claims Taft “helped me accomplish every goal I had and more” as he earned his GED and welding certificates and found strength in faith.
Since state officials announced a proposal to trim the Department of Children’s Services budget by closing Taft Youth Development Center, lawmakers in the region, Taft workers and juvenile judges have cried foul.
But there are others with more intimate knowledge of the 92-year-old facility — home to the state’s toughest juvenile offenders, mostly between 16 and 19 years old — and the benefits it can have on its inmates.
Their verdict, rendered days and miles apart, is the same:
FROM TAFT SPRINGS HOPE
For Hamilton County mother LaTonya Henry, Taft is a beacon of hope. But the budget ax hanging over its head is threatening to cut off her son’s future.
Her eyes shimmer with emotion when she talks about her 17-year-old son, Cameron Stanton, and her worries for his fate.
She knows state plans to coordinate Taft’s closure with the opening of the adult Bledsoe County Correctional Complex more than a year from now, so Taft employees can take jobs there. But she’s worried the state will close Taft too soon and her son could end up being sent to another state youth development center.
“I’m just happy that he’s doing so good,” she said, wiping away the tears escaping her eyes despite her smile.
Henry’s praying that Cameron gets his GED and welding certificates before the state closes Taft.
Cameron got in trouble three months ago over the sale of a stolen weapon and possession of stolen property. He’s been at Taft for two months. Henry said she’s counting the days till her son’s tentative release date on Aug. 1, a date that depends on Cameron’s behavior and progress. Though the state’s proposed closure timeline extends beyond Cameron’s release date, she’s watching the newspaper for word on if and when Taft will close.
“He’s supposed to be taking a GED test and have his GED in May, so hopefully he gets to stay and at least get that. He is wanting to go into the Navy and weld underwater,” she said.
She suffers from lupus and struggles to visit the mountaintop facility west of Pikeville. She doesn’t think she could get to facilities in the Nashville area without a lot more trouble.
Even though it’s a chore for her to travel to see her son, she believes Taft is a good place for him to be.
“He’s doing great,” she said, smiling at herself and Cameron’s photo in a frame. “They said he’s doing everything he’s supposed to be doing.”
Sonya Maney’s son, Delson McKinley, celebrated getting his GED in January and was released from Taft on Feb. 22.
Delson, now 18, was charged with carjacking after getting out of the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Davidson County in2008. The carjacking sentence and a felony charge of evading capture landed him at Taft.
Maney said her son didn’t respond well at Woodland Hills, even though the center was closer to her home in Davidson County and she could visit every weekend.
But after his time at Taft, her son has emerged a changed man.
“He talks more mature,” she said in a combination of surprise and pride. “He’s ready to go to college and everything now.”
In hindsight, Maney said maybe Delson was still too connected to home when he was at Woodland Hills. The isolation, stricter security and caring staff at Taft combined to drive him to a successful rehabilitation, she said.
Delson said all those factors played a part in his success at Taft.
“As much as I hated to be there, just because I was away from my family, at the end of the day it all paid off,” he said. “At Taft they really have faith in you when you don’t have faith in yourself.”
Woodland Hills was closer to home, he said, but “I would have rather been at Taft because they understand you more.”
His voice fills with excitement as he talks about his new future. His older brother, a product of Taft, too, is enrolled in school to learn auto body repair, he said, He plans to start college in April, learning to be a barber at Nashville State Community College.
His promising future wouldn’t be possible without Taft’s staff and programs, he said. Inmates are treated not like they’re being punished, but improved, Delson said. When they don’t accept available help, “I’d say it’s on the student,” he said.
“They can’t make you do it, but they help you want to,” he said. The atmosphere for most Taft teens is that they are given the tools and support for another chance.
“It’s a different feeling from being locked up because you learn stuff there. You learn a lot. They don’t treat you like you’re a bad person,” he said. “They don’t treat you like you did something wrong and now you’ve got to pay for it.”
Drew Lindsey spent 17 months at Taft after transferring from Woodland Hills. From Lewisburg, Tenn., he said he made “more improvements” at Taft than at Woodland because of the staff’s ability to motivate him.
“People tend to get the wrong ideas when they hear about Taft,” he wrote in an email. “I am here to tell you right now that Taft is not the [place] that needs to be shut down, but it is the place that needs to be given their compliments!”
Taft’s staff inspired him, he wrote.
“When I felt like giving up, somebody was always there to tell me that I can do it if I try,” he said. “They helped me accomplish every goal I had and more.
“Not only did I get a high school diploma, [two] welding certificates, and become a man of wisdom and respect, but most of all, I found God,” he said.
After the initial interview and email, Drew has not responded to further queries about his charges or experiences at Taft.
Drew and Delson, who knew each other at Taft but haven’t spoken since their release, know Taft is in imminent danger of being shuttered for good.
Drew said closure is “definitely not a good idea.”
Delson said he’d tell Gov. Bill Haslam that money isn’t the issue when it comes to Taft.
“The facility, period, is for the students the other facilities cannot control,” he said. “If they close Taft down, they’re going to have to use money to build another building.”
Taft and its programs are far more valuable to the state’s troubled youth than its cost to operate, he said.
“You can get a GED or diploma, but if they close the vocational programs down, you can’t get a job,” he said.
Taft supporters balance the facility’s operating costs with its record of success. A bipartisan group in the Legislature and juvenile justice system point to that as reason to pull back the budget ax.
Juvenile judges Howard Upchurch in Bledsoe County, Suzanne Bailey in Hamilton County, Rhea County’s Jim McKenzie, Sequatchie County’s Tommy Austin and Sam Benningfield in Van Buren County all point to Taft’s low recidivism rate and its successful GED program.
Upchurch said in January that a recent Department of Children’s Services study showed Taft’s recidivism rate at 3 percent, compared with an average of 11 percent for the state’s other youth centers.
State representatives including Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, are among local lawmakers decrying the proposed for closure. But the lawmakers’ battle could be losing punch as the budget becomes more concrete every day.
“It’s been an uphill climb since the beginning,” Sexton said. “Once the budget comes out, it’s a steeper hill than what it was. But you never say never. It’s just one of those things that you just have to wait and see and, hopefully, it’ll work out.”
Sexton said lawmakers’ options are growing fewer. His focus now is to push for an amendment on the House floor to put funding for Taft back into the state budget, then to try to transition Taft’s 160 or so staff members to the new adult prison when it opens in 2013.
The new prison is supposed to create as many as 400 jobs, officials say.
“Once the budget’s submitted, the options are limited on what you can do,” he said. “Unfortunately, those are about the only two options left.”
Cobb hopes next week to introduce an amendment to Haslam’s TEAM bill — the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability, and Management Act of 2012 — to require DCS to maintain a youth development center in the state’s “eastern grand division.” The bill says the facility should be in an area away from populous areas and communities and have a staff authorized to use chemical defense on unruly students.
In other words, funding for Taft, or a facility just like it, in a location just like Northwest Bledsoe County.
“Closing Taft is the wrong thing at the wrong time,” Cobb said.
He said he’d also keep an option open for seeking additional funding for Taft on the House floor.
Sexton still holds out hope, too.
“The services and benefits that Taft provides, in our opinion, is at a higher level than any other YDC across the state of Tennessee,” Sexton said. “We still feel there are some other things that you can do to reduce funding without having to cut one of these facilities.”
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...