NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Thirty teens “overwhelmed” their minders at a juvenile detention center by simultaneously breaking out of four dormitories and then crawling under a weak spot in a chain-link fence. By late Tuesday, eight were still on the run.
Police caught up with some walking along roads or coming out of the woods. Some turned themselves in. And some were swiftly returned to the detention center by their own families for their own good.
“He broke loose, he was gone, but he’s back now,” said LaWanda Knowles, whose nephew joined the escape. “I just want to know that he’s here safely and he’s OK – I don’t want the police jumping on him, nobody beating on him or nothing.”
The teens – ages 14 to 19 – left their rooms at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center at about 11 p.m. Monday night and gathered in common areas. With just 16 unarmed adults to keep watch over 78 youths in 12 dormitories, the staff was “overwhelmed,” said Tennessee Department of Children’s Services spokesman Rob Johnson.
“Staffing was lighter during the overnight hours, so presumably they had planned for that,” Johnson said.
The groups of young men kicked out metal panels under the windows of each dorm to get into the yard, and then ran around for a while before some started slipping through the chain-link fence that encircles their campus. The fence is buried 8 inches deep into the ground, but the teens found a spot where they could slip out underneath it.
None of the staff were hurt, and initially they simply called other staffers for backup to help bring the teens back into the dormitories. Once they spotted the teens escaping the perimeter, they alerted police, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol joined the search.
While juvenile records are sealed, police released the names and mug shots of the remaining eight fugitives, all of whom are 17 or 18 years old. None are convicted killers, said Melvin Whitlow, the facility’s superintendent.
Knowles said police had come searching for her nephew around 5 a.m. at his home about 8 miles from the facility. The teen showed up about two hours later, and briefly saw his parents and family, she said.
“He wanted to see his mom, and nieces and nephews and his sisters, so he came home,” she said. “But when we found out that he ran, I jumped in my truck and put him in there and brought him back.”
Once back in custody, the teens who escaped were being taken to juvenile court to face potential escape charges, officials said.
Most of the 78 juvenile delinquents held at the center Monday night had committed at least three felonies, Johnson said, but the facility is more like a high school with security than an adult prison. There are no guard towers or barbed wire.
The teens stay in single rooms that for their own security are locked on the outside, so that only those with keys can enter. But they can push their room doors open if they need to. They wear blue pants with white or light gray T-shirts, with no markings.
The center has a school, offers vocational training and career counseling, and works to move teens to less restrictive settings, according to a state website. It holds them until their 19th birthdays. All have been charged as juveniles, not adults.
The fence was fixed and the center was calm and back under control Tuesday morning, Johnson said. Police cars were on the scene, but there was little activity at the center or its neighbors – a women’s prison, several trucking company offices, a frozen pizza plant and a liquor distributor.
It’s not the first time teens have broken out of their dorms there. In May, a staff member was injured when a half-dozen students escaped into a courtyard, but never made it any farther.
Associated Press writer Travis Loller contributed to this report.