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Lawmakers Push Sweeping Changes to 'Safekeeping' Law, Ban Sending Teen Safekeepers to Prison

Tennessee lawmakers are ready to add significant new safeguards to a law that allows judges to send children, men and women not convicted of a crime to months in solitary confinement in a state prison.

The proposed changes would ban sending juveniles to state prison through the controversial program and establishes a mandated review of whether those sent to solitary confinement before trial should remain.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the changes are needed to Tennessee's safekeeping law in order to provide more due process and to avoid people being forgotten.

"In sum, it’s designed to keep prisoners and juveniles from being held indefinitely, without review, for the actual necessity for safekeeping," Norris said during a recent Senate committee meeting.

More: Special Report: Alone and afraid, Tennesseans not convicted of a crime spend months in solitary

Norris, state Sens. Ken Yager and Ed Jackson each cited a joint investigation from The Marshall Project and USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee as the impetus of the bill.

“The Tennessean series on this matter was alarming and we immediately began work to seek remedies to find a better way to house those who need safekeeping, especially juveniles and females," Yager and Jackson said in a joint statement.

"This legislation puts more judicial safeguards into place and is a good step forward, but we need to continue to evaluate the situation to see what further measures might be taken. The bill has an excellent outlook in the Senate for passage.”

More: Gov. Bill Haslam: 'Doesn't make sense' to house juveniles not convicted of a crime in solitary confinement

More: Tennessee Senate committees 'looking into' state safekeeping laws, says senate leader's spokesman

What is safekeeping?

The investigation found from January 2011 through 2017, more than 320 people awaiting trial in the state were declared safekeepers.

The safekeeping law, essentially unchanged for more than 150 years, allows county jail administrators to say their jail is insufficient to house someone due to medical problems, mental illness or behavioral issues. Those people are then sent to state prison for "safekeeping," where Tennessee Department of Correction policy dictates they are kept in solitary confinement.

In late March, Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said his department is reviewing how it houses safekeepers. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday prison officials support the proposed legal changes and continue to review possible future changes.

"In addition, the department is currently reviewing the safekeeper policy to ensure that each offender and their classification are thoroughly reviewed on an individual basis," said department spokeswoman Neysa Taylor.

"The department wants to look at each safekeeper and take into consideration their specific and individual medical needs, security designation, gang affiliation and potential incompatibles that may be present."

A House committee Tuesday approved a different version of the proposed changes with no discussion. It's anticipated the Senate will agree with the House's proposed bill.

Changes stop teens from going to solitary confinement in state prison

The suggested changes to law would have the largest impact on juvenile safekeepers. The bill states juveniles deemed safekeepers must be taken to the "nearest sufficient juvenile detention facility."

The investigation found a now 16-year-old Memphis girl spent months in solitary confinement at the Tennessee Prison for Women. Charged with murder, Teriyona Winton was kept more than 200 miles from home, remaining in her cell 23 hours a day and receiving periodic tutoring through the pie flap in her door.

The Tennessee Department of Correction plans to house 16-year-old Teriyona Winton by herself in this wing of the Women's Therapeutic Residential Center in Henning, Tennessee. The department included a photograph of the unit in a recent Shelby County court filing in which officials argued the unit would be appropriate housing for Winton. (Photo: Submitted / Tennessee Department of Correction)

More: Memphis teen to be housed in empty prison wing after months in solitary confinement

Earlier this month, the Department of Correction moved her to a wing of a West Tennessee prison. Designed for 128 inmates, she was set to be there by herself in order to satisfy a state law that bans housing juvenile offenders within sight or sound of adults.

The bill would also create a mandatory review process. At least every 30 days, the court that ordered someone to safekeeping would have to review the circumstances of the case to determine if safekeeping was still necessary.

A snapshot from the investigation shows on Dec. 31, the average stay of safekeepers in state prison was 328 days. Fifteen of the 57 people in safekeeping on that day had been held longer than a year.

Regenia Bowman was deemed a safekeeper in 2014 because she had MRSA, an infection her judge determined was outside the scope of treatment by the Bledsoe County jail. Accused of selling painkillers, she spent 189 days in solitary confinement before trial, despite her infection clearing up after two months.

More: Tennessee prison chief requests 'safekeeping' review; policy puts pretrial detainees in solitary confinement

Norris also said the bill will save the state money. Right now, many counties use the safekeeping program in part because they cannot afford to keep pre-trial detainees who suffer from significant medical issues.

The House and Senate must agree to the proposed changes and Gov. Bill Haslam must sign the measure before it could become law. Haslam previously criticized housing juveniles in solitary confinement.

Norris said he spoke with Haslam about the bill, and "it seems to have been warmly received" by the governor.

First version of changes may had ended safekeeping altogether

The bill that passed in the House committee Tuesday is the latest version of proposed changes to safekeeping law. The original bill as proposed by Norris contained language that, in theory, could have paved the way to ending safekeeping altogether.

"Nothing in this section authorizes a prisoner to be committed or removed to the state penitentiary or a branch prison for safekeeping," the bill stated.

The law states safekeepers need to be transferred to the nearest sufficient jail, but case law has determined transferring safekeepers to prison is allowable. This provision in the bill could have stopped such transfers, and also saved the state more than $1 million.

However, the updated version of the measure says the section of law only mentions juveniles, stating the bill doesn't allow for their transfer to a prison for safekeeping.

The original bill also stated a court could not issue a safekeeping order without holding a hearing where the person potentially up for safekeeping would need to be present.

Norris said the changes came after a discussion with the state sheriff's association. The association argued some pre-trial detainees suffer from potentially complicated — and expensive — medical issues that a prison is better suited to handle, Norris said.

"If this were the beginning of session..we might do more. But at least this puts down a marker and protects due process," Norris said.

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