The search for new management of the Tri-Cities only juvenile detention center has prompted area mayors to question the status quo and re-examine how our region houses young criminals.
News Channel 11’s Kylie McGivern met with Washington County, Tennessee Mayor Dan Eldridge to learn what the change in control means moving forward.
News Channel 11 obtained a copy of a Universal Health Services (UHS) letter addressed to Mayor Eldridge July 30th. The letter gave notice that it would be stepping away from managing the Upper East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Detention Center, which is located in Johnson City.
Senior Vice President of the UHS Behavioral Health Division Gary Gilberti writes:
“This letter is to confirm that the Management Agreement, Upper East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Detention Center (“Center”), dated June 30, 2010, as amended (“Agreement”) terminated as of December 31, 2014. Since the date of expiration, Keystone has been providing services. This letter is also to provide you with a courtesy notice that it intends to continue providing services and terminate its management relationship with the Center effective 30 days from the date of this letter.”
Mayor Eldridge said UHS then agreed to continue providing services beyond the 30 days in order to find a replacement company to oversee the facility.
Turns out the juvenile detention center board (comprised of mayors from Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Unicoi, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson, and Hancock counties) no longer needs that extra time.
As Mayor Eldridge told News Channel 11 Tuesday, that’s because ElyJenn of Northeast Tennessee, LLC has signed a contract to take over management duties August 29th. We’re told company came as a recommendation from the Upper East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Detention Center CEO, Ralph Sparks.
The agreement will not cost area counties any more than what they are paying into the juvenile detention center currently.
“We pay a base fee on a monthly basis, which keeps the doors open, the lights on, and the staff paid. And that fee is constant, it has been constant for the last several years. In the agreement going forward, it’s the same amount. The amount over and above that is paid on a per detainee basis on a daily basis.”
An Associated Press article dated September 2014 said the area’s juvenile detention center had the lowest number of inmate intakes in 2013 in its 27-year history. Something Mayor Eldridge confirmed.
“A lot of that has to do with alternative housing of the detainees. So often now, I think the courts are looking at the opportunity to use ankle bracelets as opposed to detention. And other alternatives. So we do house less juveniles, probably than we ever have. And the numbers are significantly less than they were even 10 years ago.”
The board’s review process included a discussion about potentially just transporting the juvenile offenders to another detention center rather than keep the Upper East Tennessee Regional Juvenile Detention Center open. But the closest centers are in Knoxville and Sevierville. Under no circumstances can you house juveniles in the same facility as adults.
“From the standpoint of cost and the transportation, the inconvenience, the challenges that it would present to the families and to the courts, we made the decision that it makes sense for the counties of Northeast Tennessee to maintain this facility and continue to provide the service locally,” Mayor Eldridge said.
Arguably the biggest success, Mayor Eldridge said, is the fact that the mayors used the “changing of the guard” opportunity as a chance to take a step back, before putting together a new contract. Keep in mind, UHS has managed the detention center since 2004, more than a decade.
“From an operational standpoint, it doesn’t have any impact,” Mayor Eldridge said, pointing out that current management and existing staffing on site will remain the same. “From a contractual standpoint, it HAS been an opportunity for us to clean up some things. So we did take advantage of that. You know, 7 of the 8 mayors who executed the last agreement with Universal Health are no longer in office. So you’ve got all new mayors, you’ve got county attorneys – it was the opportunity to have a fresh set of eyes and kind of a wholesale review of not only the contract itself, but how we do do juvenile detention in this region. So, I think that in the end we have had a very productive process.”
Now, he says visible change is on the way.
“One of the things that we’ve identified is the needs to do some upgrades in the facility. So we’re focused on that, that’s going to be a next step for us. We have funds reserved to make capital improvements to the facility. We expect to undertake that in just the next few months. You know, we’re also looking at this from the perspective of assuring that the entity itself both contractually and legally where it needs to be, from the standpoint of insurance, and directors and officers liability. So this has been a very good process for us to go through and just really do a thorough top to bottom review of how we do juvenile detention in Northeast Tennessee,” Mayor Eldridge said.
Kylie: “Do you think that review process would have happened if UHS was continuing to manage it? Without them exiting?”
Mayor Eldridge: “Um, you know I would like to think that that would have been the case, obviously you know I can’t say for sure that it would have. But the fact that we did change management companies DID provide the opportunity, and quite frankly was the impetus to go through a very rigorous review of everything.”
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