MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - You've seen the stories about children committing serious crimes. If the offenders are too young to serve their time at the Shelby County Jail. they go to the Juvenile Detention Center.
For the first time, I got an unprecedented tour inside - and interviews with the children serving time.
Rick Powell, Juvenile Court's detention chief, says fifteen to twenty percent of the teens on any given day could get out of juvenile jail, but their parents refuse to pick them up:
"Parents leave them here," he said. "A lot of them say 'I want to teach them a lesson,' or some of them we just can't find the parents."
"You've got to remember who's doing the teaching here," Powell added. "I have some very serious offenders here. If a child has committed a minor offense, they're shoulder-to-shoulder with carjackers, murderers and rapists. So teaching a lesson is not recommended at all."
During a recent visit, 83 boys and 9 girls were incarcerated downtown. They ranged in age from 13 to 17, and faced charges as simple as "no state driver license" to hard core crime, including aggravated robbery, rape, assault, burglary and carjacking.
On a good day, the youngsters hear from motivational speakers like Jeff Jackson, a youth minister who talks about growing up poor and getting banned from stores as a kid for shoplifting.
Now a postal executive with a wife and family, Jackson volunteers his time to encourage youngsters to not become repeat offenders.
"If you do that, guaranteed, you're going to find yourself over here or you're going to find yourself at 201 Poplar or 6 feet under, guaranteed," Jackson told a group of children during our visit. "Most of you or some of you have friends who have already done that. But you have a chance."
The journey into juvenile jail begins here, in the detention services bureau nerve center. There, they are booked, searched, and ultimately sent to their room from 9pm to 6am.
"We don't argue with kids here," Powell said. "You know, if a child says they're not going to get up at six o'clock, we'll say, 'OK. We'll try again tomorrow,' and they take their meals in the room, and the next morning we open the door and say, 'Are you ready to come out?'
"Typically, they are."
The jail is clean and detention officers make certain it's safe. But as thousands of youngsters learn the hard way every year, it's not a place any teen would want to sleep-over.