PHOTO: Flags fly at half-mast outside the Williamson County Criminal Justice Center on July 3, 2018./Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
For the fourth week of our Franklin Citizen’s Police Academy class, my classmates and I meet inside a courtroom at the Williamson County Juvenile Justice Center.
I arrive just a minute late, hearing a video overview of juvenile justice narrated by a voice so upbeat, it seems out of place, given the content.
That’s Zannie Martin, the juvenile court director, who is married to a Franklin police officer and has over two decades of experience in juvenile justice.
As Martin continues on to explain initial charges bringing children to court (truancy, runaways and unruly behavior), she remains unflinchingly positive about the impact she and her colleagues can have on them.
“If we invest in our young people, we stand the greatest chance of making a difference,” she says.
Make no mistake: juvenile court business is serious stuff.
While most children come to the attention of the court through relatively minor charges like truancy from school, Martin said, these can be a clue to greater problems within the home, like abuse and neglect.
There are multiple steps in the legal process, which could ultimately lead to children being placed in foster care and the termination of parental rights.
Last year, 2,000 children went through the court system, and 900 passed through the 12-bed detention center. The average stay at the juvenile jail is two-and-a-half nights.
Of those cases, many involve drugs, mostly marijuana, but amphetamine use is becoming an increasing problem.
But 95 percent of children who underwent the intensive probation program, developed in 2014 for the most at-risk youth offenders, did not enter into the state’s custody.
This year, the juvenile justice system has 1,600 new cases, 94 of which are felonies, while 923 are misdemeanors.
Marin shares about a Nashville program the county utilizes called EPIC Girl, which teaches young female offenders about trauma and making good choices. I raise my hand and ask if there is a similar program for young men.
No, Martin says, though she has thought of that, too. She adds that the county is considering one.
Williamson County Jail
After an overview of the courts system in the region, we join Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Chad Younker for a tour of the jail.
Built in 1984, the jail is beginning to show its age: in one section, the ceiling is falling apart, and blasts from the nearby rock quarry have caused cracks in windows.
Tonight, there are 334 people in custody. Inmates wear different colored uniforms to designate their status: orange for general population, black and white stripes for trustees, or those who have a good jail record, and red for lockdown.
We visit several control rooms, where officers monitor the dozens of cameras set up throughout the jail at all times.
A medical facility provides prisoners with life-saving medication, like insulin for diabetes, and allows for necessary medical procedures.
Younker doesn’t know how many inmates take psychotropic medications for mental illness, but he does believe the number of mentally ill inmates has been on the rise.
“We have some inmates here who probably shouldn’t be here,” he admitted.
The layout of the jail is open-dorm format, with offenders sleeping two to a cell between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Kiosks are available inside each “pod,” as Younker calls them, for communications with the guards.
There is a button to push if one is experiencing suicidal thoughts. Younker says it gets pressed all too often, whether through genuine suicidal ideation or a desire for attention.
Soon, the jail will have iPads for inmates to play games, listen to approved music, and receive emails. Receiving physical mail runs the risk that inmates may be receiving and distributing drugs within the jail.
Three meals are served each day, beginning in the early morning hours, though the state only requires two.
There are four yards for recreation in the complex, and we see one. Concrete and empty, the yard is bounded by coils of barbed wire.
A solitary confinement section of the jail hold 20 cells. Offenders are placed in confinement for anything from fighting to possession of contraband.
A disciplinary board, comprised of three volunteers from outside the jail, will hold a hearing before inmates are placed into the 23-hour lockdown cells, where they can spend as long as 30 days at a time separated from the general population.
Heading back through the maze of walkways and doors, we finally head back outside into the cool night air.
It feels a great departure from the stale scent of the jail; I breathe in deeply, thankfully.
If you missed last week’s column, you can read it here.