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Tired Of Being There, Is Why Teens Broke Out Of Tenn. Facility


Next we'll hear how a troubled juvenile detention facility looks to a young man inside. The facility is in Tennessee. In September, 32 teens broke out even though it is the state's highest security juvenile detention center. The inmates have been recaptured, but the facility has since experienced two more major incidents including a riot. So why is that center so troubled? Reporter Bobby Allyn of member station WPLN in Nashville spoke with one of the recaptured teens.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Tajhiee Cockerham is a slender 5-foot-6. He has big, brown eyes and a baby face. He grew up in a working-class part of Nashville and began getting in trouble around middle school. After being charged with marijuana possession, carrying an illegal gun and assault, he was sent to Woodland Hills, the state's last resort for troubled youth. After eight months...

TAJHIEE COCKERHAM: It's like when the opportunity came, we just took it, man. We was just tired of being there. It's not a life you just want to just be around every day.

ALLYN: He's recalling the time there was a late-night shift change at the maximum security juvenile detention center. Teens overpowered guards, then kicked out aluminum panels under the windows. They crawled through a weak spot in the surrounding fence.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Now to that breakout at the juvenile detention center in Tennessee, more than 30 teenagers escaping overnight.

COCKERHAM: I just feel, like, a big rush of relief over me, man. I was just ready to be out of there, man.

ALLYN: Cockerham describes Woodland Hills as a place of chaos. Teens were constantly acting up. Staff had little control. In the eight months he was there, Cockerham says he witnessed several scuffles between guards and teen inmates. He recalls one incident in which guards were taunting one of the teens.

COCKERHAM: We was just trying to walk off, and he was just steady coming behind him. And then the other guards that's supposed to be the corporals or whatever, they supposed to be telling him to calm down. They're just laughing at the situation. Like, why you going to let him talk to him like that?

ALLYN: Internal audits show a long pattern of violence at the facility between youth and the staff. Department of Children's Services spokesman Rob Johnson says because it's a youth facility, there's only so much guards can do.

ROB JOHNSON: They do not have the ability to lock these kids in their rooms. Our officers don't have weapons. Our officers do not have anything such as pepper spray or mace.

ALLYN: In the wake of the escape and another mass escape that same month, officials hired more staff. They're also trying to change rules so they could have more control over the kids and less chance of breakouts like the one that Cockerham took part in.

COCKERHAM: One thing led to another, and then somebody ended up kicking out the little, metal thing under the window, and then everybody just went from there.

ALLYN: Cockerham recounts how his group booked it. He yelled that if they didn't split up, they'd be caught. So he rushed on alone for about two miles. He stopped at a CVS and asked someone standing outside if he could borrow his phone.

COCKERHAM: He was a cool guy. And I ended up just telling him what we was on the run from. And he was like, well, yeah, y'all need to hurry up and get up off these streets. And he was like, yeah, he let me use his phone. I called my homie. He was there in, like, 15 minutes.

ALLYN: His friend took him to a nearby suburb - Murfreesboro - where he holed up in an apartment.

COCKERHAM: To be honest, I thought I was going to be good in Murfreesboro. I thought I was going to be out then.

ALLYN: Murfreesboro is not another country, though. You know that, right?

COCKERHAM: Yeah, yeah, I know. (Laughter) But, yeah, I thought I was going to be straight out then.

ALLYN: It was as if he felt invincible. And his only plan was this...

COCKERHAM: Selling weed, like, rob somebody or something if I came across them. I don't know, just get the money. It might have to be some hot stuff, but I got to survive, man.

ALLYN: Ten days later, he was playing basketball near the apartment complex when federal agents took him by surprise.

COCKERHAM: Man, it just happened so fast. I don't know. I was just playing basketball, and then he pulled up out of nowhere. I really couldn't even just do nothing. I couldn't run or nothing, I mean, it was, like, damn, caught.

ALLYN: Cockerham is now in an adult jail. With more security, he says it's calmer than Woodland Hills. After a one-year sentence, he'll be released. He says he has some ideas of what he'll do to make some decent money, like maybe getting a barber's license. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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