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Investigation finds Tenn. juvenile detention center illegally secluded children

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

State lawmakers in Tennessee are demanding an audit of every juvenile detention center to see how often kids housed there are locked up alone in cells. This comes after an investigation from WPLN and ProPublica revealed that one facility in Knoxville has punished kids for minor rule infractions by secluding them for hours, even days at a time, which is against the law. Paige Pfleger with member station WPLN reports lawmakers are calling for that facility's superintendent to resign.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: We're here to meet with Mr. Bean.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right.

PFLEGER: At 83 years old, Richard L. Bean leans on a bamboo cane as he gives a tour of this detention center that bears his name. He's run the facility since 1972, and he's nostalgic for the way things used to be, like when he could beat kids with paddles.

RICHARD L BEAN: We didn't have any problems. I'd whip six or eight a year, and it'd run pretty smooth. They'd say you didn't want him to get a hold of you.

PFLEGER: And Bean holds outdated and unapologetic views on juvenile justice.

BEAN: What we do is treat everybody like they're in here for murder, and you don't have any problems if you do that.

PFLEGER: For years, Bean has failed to keep up with Tennessee's changing laws and standards, especially when it comes to locking kids up alone in cells. Records reviewed by WPLN and ProPublica show that Bean has been using that practice called seclusion more than other facilities in the state, locking kids up for infractions as minor as forgetting to bring books to class.

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PFLEGER: Tyshon Booker knows firsthand. He calls me from Morgan County Correctional, where he's incarcerated for a homicide he committed when he was 16. He's 24 now but remembers being secluded in the Richard L. Bean Center. He struggled to keep his mind busy.

TYSHON BOOKER: I learned how to make dice out of bread, rolling dice on a dirty floor for hours. You got to remember, we're in solitary confinement, so I'd get hungry, and I'd eat the dice.

PFLEGER: He would eat the dice made of bread. He says it was worse than anything he's experienced in adult prison.

BOOKER: I guess Richard L. Bean, from it being a juvenile detention center, are - they saying, oh, they're kids. Nobody's going to do this to kids or nobody would treat kids like this.

PFLEGER: Around the time Booker was locked in solitary, Tennessee's Department of Children's Services changed its rules surrounding seclusion. A 2018 state law said seclusion should be a last resort and could not be used to punish kids. It was an acknowledgment of research that showed solitary confinement can have damaging psychological effects, especially on kids. It's the state's Department of Children's Services that's supposed to enforce those rules, but the department has not done so at the Richard L. Bean Center, where isolating kids in cells continued for years. The department declined to comment about why it did not do more to intervene. Kylie Graves is with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, a group that's been advocating for more oversight.

KYLIE GRAVES: You can write everything into statute and create some really solid legislation, but if it's not being used or it's not being enforced, then what's the next step?

PFLEGER: The Department of Children's Services is somewhat limited in its power over a facility like Bean's because it's run by the county. It's part of the reason that Bean is not concerned about getting caught.

Were you ever worried about, you know, maybe getting in trouble for it?

BEAN: Well, I believe if I got in trouble for it, then I believe I could talk to whoever got me in trouble, and I could get out of it.

PFLEGER: That's about to be tested. Since our reporting, Bean hasn't responded to request for comment. A member of the Bean center's board defended the superintendent's practices to a local TV station calling it the best facility in the state. But more than a dozen Democratic state lawmakers are calling for Bean's resignation and for a deeper examination of how juvenile detention centers have been locking up kids alone in their cells.

For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Knoxville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.