- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A troubled Middle Tennessee youth detention center has increased security and is making changes to its behavior-modification program in hopes of preventing future rioting and escapes, officials said Thursday.

Reporters were invited to take a tour of Woodland Hills in Nashville, where more than 30 teenagers escaped on Sept. 1. All were eventually recaptured. That escape was the first of three major problems at the facility in September. There also was a riot in the yard and another breakout in which 13 teens escaped.

Since then, the center has used concrete to reinforce the bottom of the fence that surrounds the facility. Workers also have reinforced aluminum panels under the dormitory windows that the teens were able to kick out during the first escape, and covered both the panels and windows with mesh steel.

The facility’s behavior-modification program is also being changed to a more incentive-based program and less of a punitive model.

“It makes a big difference for those … who want to change,” said security manager Michael Gordon, one of several facility officials who accompanied reporters on the tour.

“Given the right set of circumstances, you can reach about 80 percent or a little higher.”

The Woodland Hills facility has a long history of violence, allegations of sexual abuse and previous efforts to break out. Between January and early September of this year, there were 145 reports of violence at the facility including 39 assaults by teens on each other and 51 assaults by teens on staff.

But officials said Thursday that changes they are making should drastically curtail such events. In terms of changing behavior, they also touted the facility’s education program that makes attending classes mandatory. Teens are able to get a GED, and they also learn skills in vocational classes that could help them find employment once they’re released, officials said.

“We try … to get them in position to be successful when they leave Woodland Hills,” said the facility’s principal, Leslie Dyer.

Everette Parrish, an attorney appointed to defend the civil rights of youths at Woodland Hills, said he likes the changes the facility is making, particularly when it comes to behavior.

“Therapeutic models are welcomed over punitive prison models,” he said. “Woodland Hills is making the right kinds of changes in the right direction.”

Rob Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Children’s Services, which oversees Woodland Hills, said the new behavior- modification program should be fully implemented by March.

Meanwhile, several teens who escaped have been sent to a facility in Texas to receive treatment because they continued to be unruly, Johnson said.

However, he said the state has arranged for each one to be visited by a family member, as well as case workers from Woodland Hills.

“We haven’t given up on these kids,” Johnson said. “They still need the treatment and the education, but they need to do it in a place where they can be secure.”


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