PREA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, sweeping federal legislation targeting the nation’s prisons and jails. Passed in 2003, the law was aimed in part at places like this — facilities for youth who present a danger to others or themselves. But while PREA has proven hard to implement, that’s not why I was there that day. Less than a year after Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham took over the detention center that sits directly above juvenile court, officials were running dangerously afoul of a different federal intervention — one designed specifically for Shelby County.
In the spring of 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice released the scathing results of a civil rights investigation into the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County (JCMSC). Almost 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that kids have the same due process rights as adults, the system in Memphis seemed frozen in time. Children received little meaningful defense representation in delinquency hearings and were subjected to hurried, ill-informed, and arbitrary decisions, including transfers to adult court. Worse, “we found that African-American children were treated differently and more harshly,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez said. While white kids who broke the law were often sent to diversion programs, black kids were more than twice as likely to be treated like adults. Those kept in custody here were subjected “to unnecessary and excessive restraint,” the DOJ report said, including the use of controversial “restraint chairs.”